Over and over, shooting probes in Minnesota exonerate officers

State Bureau of Criminal Apprehension says its inquiries found police shootings were justified. But some see red flags.

The state has investigated 83 shootings of individuals by law enforcement officers over the past decade, and all but one led to the same finding: The use of deadly force was justified.

Records of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that were examined by the Star Tribune found that the agency was called in to investigate shootings involving 65 departments statewide from 2003 through 2013. Collectively, those incidents resulted in the deaths of 44 people and injuries to 39 others, the records show.

In the only case deemed unjustified, a McLeod County sheriff’s deputy was indicted on a charge of a nonfatal shooting of an unarmed man in 2012, but charges were dismissed, records show.

In December, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau announced that the BCA would take over investigations of the city’s “critical incidents,” such as officer-involved shootings, as a move to increase public confidence. That proposal came under sharp criticism from the police union and Gov. Mark Dayton, and the BCA said earlier this month that “Minneapolis will continue to handle its own officer-involved shooting investigations.”

The BCA said its role is simply to provide the facts and an independent investigation, and that county attorneys make the determination on whether to pursue charges. Assistant Superintendent Drew Evans said it would be “inappropriate” for the BCA to make recommendations for criminal indictments or officer discipline.

“You’ll never see a file with us that says justified or unjustified, or any judgment, as to what occurred in that case,” Evans said.

The BCA’s “case closure reports” show law enforcement departments across the state dealing with split-second, often deadly, decisions. Many of those shot were suicidal, under the influence of drugs or alcohol or suffering other mental health crises. In all cases, the police officers said they felt their lives or the lives of their colleagues were in danger.

Yet the absence of charges against officers over the past 10 years indicates to some defense attorneys and advocates that county attorneys are reluctant to prosecute officers for fear of jeopardizing their relationship. They point to the need for an independent review board to consider whether an officer’s use of force warrants discipline.

“If there has only been one unjustified case, that in and of itself raises red flags,” said attorney Jim Behrenbrinker, who represents victims of alleged police brutality.

‘Conflict investigations’

A local agency has discretion over whether to call in the BCA to look into a police-involved shooting. The records show they tend to be smaller agencies, because Minneapolis, St. Paul and other large departments often handle the cases internally.

Evans called its probes “conflict investigations,” because a department determines that investigating its own officers poses a potential conflict of interest.

“They are making a conscious decision to bring in that outside agency that is independent, unconnected to them, to conduct the investigation,” Evans said.

The case closure reports show instances where officers were dealing with violent attacks and high-speed chases, but there were also instances where victims had an unloaded or fake gun. In at least two cases, no weapon was found.

Officers often faced hostile and uncooperative people who posed an obvious threat. In 2010, Donnie Lira showed up at his estranged wife’s home in Mountain Iron, Minn., and shot several rifle rounds at her house, according to the BCA’s investigation. Officers from the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office and Minnesota State Patrol were heading to the home when trooper Travis Pearson encountered Lira’s vehicle.

When Pearson told Lira to show his hands, Lira pulled out the rifle and pointed it at Pearson. Pearson then fired his semiautomatic handgun and killed Lira, according to the documents.

After the BCA investigated the case, St. Louis County attorney Melanie Ford determined Pearson’s actions were justified, saying, “These actions placed trooper Pearson in the unfortunate position of having no [other] reasonable option than to fire at Lira.”

In at least 14 cases, officers faced individuals who were suicidal or had mental health issues, the Star Tribune’s analysis showed.

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  • A sampling of 'case closure' reports

    Wednesday April 30, 2014

    The Star Tribune reviewed 83 "case closure reports" of officer-involved shootings investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

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