The Star Tribune built this database by culling information from death certificates, news stories, crowdsourcing sites, state and local police records, FBI supplementary homicide reports and arrest-related death reports and medical examiner data.
Government agencies have not adequately tracked these deaths. Even death certificates, the official record of what caused a person to die, often lack any mention of police involvement.
Of the 147 people killed by police in Minnesota since 2000, 130 were deemed a homicide; only 63 of the 130 death certificates indicated that law enforcement was involved. Eight other deaths were ruled accidental, natural or suicide; four could not be determined; three were not available and two were pending a ruling.
In most cases the deceased was shot, but some died after being hit with a Taser, restrained, pepper-sprayed or after wrestling with officers.
The Star Tribune also determined which people had a history of mental illness or were having a psychological crisis at the time of the incident.
People are listed as having mental health problems if family members interviewed by reporters or police investigators said the person had a history of mental illness or was experiencing a mental health crisis, such as being depressed or suicidal; if court documents showed a past civil commitment to a psychiatric facility; if they were taking medication to treat mental disorders; or if death certificate data listed mental health issues.
We excluded cases where death certificates showed the person had a mental disorder caused by drugs or alcohol, if that was the only sign of a mental health problem.
In December, after the Star Tribune inquired about the subject, the Minnesota Department of Health department sent e-mails to medical examiners and coroners urging them to provide more detail on police shootings and other deaths involving law enforcement.
The health department wrote that it found at least 13 deaths last year in Minnesota caused by legal intervention, and that only five of the death records contained the necessary keywords to code them as such. It’s working to fix records from 2015, but won’t change death records from previous years.
The National Center for Health Statistics tracks deaths caused by “legal intervention,” but cannot do so without adequate information, the state advised. The department said the words “police” or “legal intervention” and a concise description of the injuries should be recorded in the injury description.
Jon Roesler, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health and a supervisor in the Injury and Violence Prevention Unit, said the department is analyzing legal intervention deaths as part of an effort to better understand violence. It plans to finish a new data system to describe the deaths by 2017.
“Cause of death is our most fundamental health statistic,” Roesler said.
Roesler said there’s also concern about how medical examiners and coroners handle “suicide by cop” deaths, where someone provokes police into shooting them.
Last year, an Itasca County Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 31-year Adam Schneider, who was depressed and refused to drop his gun. Schneider’s death was ruled a suicide, although he did not die by his own bullet.
Itasca County Coroner Dr. Michael Baich, who made the ruling, said in an interview that medical examiners have to consider motive.
“He was just basically despondent and he wanted to end things and he didn’t have the courage to shoot someone else and didn’t have the courage to shoot himself,” Baich said. “I have to decide how I’m going to call it.”
The missing death certificate data mirrors a national problem with law enforcement records. Law enforcement agencies are supposed to file supplemental homicide reports noting “justifiable homicides” by officers. It’s a voluntary program, and not all agencies file the reports, something the Justice Department is working to change.
In Minnesota, only 49 of the 114 people killed from 2000 through 2014, where the death was ruled homicide, were reported to the FBI as justifiable homicides, the Star Tribune found.