The use of force by Minneapolis police has plunged 50 percent in the last decade, signaling a broad shift away from the “warrior” mentality that favors aggressive policing to reduce crime.
Police used force about 22 times for every 10,000 police calls last year, the lowest per capita rate since at least 2008, according to a Star Tribune analysis of publicly available department statistics. The overall force rate is half of what it was 10 years ago — about 46 per 10,000 calls — when the department was dogged by criticism that some officers brutalized minorities following several high-profile episodes, including one in which SWAT officers mistakenly raided a North Side house while searching for evidence of illegal activity.
Cmdr. Todd Sauvageau, who runs the department’s training program, said growing awareness about the connection between mental health and crime is likely a factor, while also pointing to training that teaches cops to confront their own biases.
“I think we’re just a little bit more mindful and reserved in jumping in and using the force that for the most part was reasonable when they were doing it,” Sauvageau said. “But it falls into ‘Hey, it’s lawful, but is it really right?’ ”
At the same time, the likelihood of being pepper-sprayed, tackled or Tased remains higher for blacks than other groups, according to police department data.
“I don’t know how you use statistics to explain the kind of pain that’s happening to us, I don’t care about the statistics,” said longtime activist Spike Moss, citing continued police shootings around the country. “Hell, you can make up statistics, but you can’t make up those whoopings and shootings.”
The department only began collecting use-of-force data in 2006, making comparisons with previous years difficult, officials say.
The most common type of force deployed in the past decade was physical contact (about 70 percent of incidents), followed by chemical irritants (15 percent) and Tasers (10 percent). Instances of officers displaying or firing their service weapons were statistically rare, the statistics show.
This comes as cops are responding to more emergency calls, while arrest rates have dipped to their lowest levels since 2000.
Chief Medaria Arradondo highlighted several possible reasons for the falling use-of-force incidents over the last few years, including training on de-escalation techniques that reflects the department’s new emphasis on the “sanctity of life” for everyone, not just officers.
“We have shifted into a culture of policing that is “guardian-based,” he said at a recent news conference.
That, he said, factored into his last-minute decision this month to pull some of his officers out of a controversial training, formerly called “Bulletproof Warrior,” which promises to teach officers to “survive” in an increasingly violent society. The program first came to light two years ago after the shooting death of Philando Castile, when it was revealed that the former St. Anthony police officer who shot him had attended the training as part of his continuing education.
More police scrutiny
The statistical changes have occurred in a climate where police behavior is under greater scrutiny.
Under Arradondo, the department for the first time released complete use-of-force statistics, in the form of an online dashboard that lets users see when and where officers used force while on duty, what kind of force was used and against what gender and race, from 2008 to the present.
Imani Jaafar, director of the Office of Police Conduct Review (OPCR), said the decline comes as more police departments have adopted body cameras, while admitting that the research on the devices’ effect on officers’ behavior is mixed at best. She added that the perception of police over-aggressiveness has thrived regardless of evidence that counters it, because of the lingering trauma of past encounters with law enforcement.
“It think it traumatizes the whole community, especially when they watch their peers go through that, so it takes a long time to rebuild trust,” she said. “The response is, ‘Well, that’s great things are changing for other people, but not for us.’ ”
Nationally, the use of force has been steadily declining for decades, a process hastened by outrage over recent controversial police killings, said William Sousa, professor and director of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ Center for Crime and Justice Policy.
While police officers involved in on-duty shootings have wide protections, he said, increasingly the question being asked after a critical incident is “Could the officer have done something different that could have avoided making that decision?”
Last year, the Minneapolis Police Federation, the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file officers, criticized a new policy that “strongly” discouraged the shooting of, or from, moving vehicles, saying that the rule change effectively removed officers’ discretion in fast-moving situations.
Sauvageau said that many police academies now emphasize de-escalation techniques, teaching officers to speak calmly to suspects and to slow down encounters as much as possible, giving themselves and the subject time to cool down and think things through.
According to department data, officers used force during about 11,000 calls since 2008.
Blacks account for nearly two-thirds of the suspects in that span, whites about a quarter of instances, and American Indians were targeted 5 percent of the time.
Most of the cases occurred on the city’s North Side and downtown, where officers sometimes use pepper spray to disperse unruly crowds after bars close. In 70 percent of the cases, according to the data analyzed, the incidents didn’t result in any injuries.
The analysis shows that 63 percent of use-of-force cases involved blacks, who make up only about 19 percent of Minneapolis’ population. More than half of the incidents did not stem from a 911 call, but were self-initiated officer stops.
The Rev. Jerry McAfee, a North Side pastor and activist, said there’s more to the story than just the numbers.
“Statistical data don’t take into consideration that many times it’s not reported, because a lot of people in the community feel like it’s an exercise in futility,” he said.
Sauvageau said that officers can’t control who they encounter when they take a call.
“If people are calling 911 to tell us something happened, we don’t have any control over what the race an individual might be, the race, the gender,” he said.
Several years ago, the department overhauled its early-intervention system to identify and help potentially troubled officers. Officials touted the new program as a “clearinghouse” for officer behavior, allowing supervisors to better monitor their officers. For instance, the department is alerted if an officer throws five punches in a year, or kicks or strikes a suspect multiple times.
Minneapolis-based civil rights attorney Zorislav R. Leyderman is not buying that police officers are better behaved.
“I see police officers continue to act verbally aggressively toward people, and people who are already afraid of police to begin with have a response that tends to unnecessarily escalate situations,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.