A watchdog group contends Minneapolis police are failing to make arrests in cases of domestic abuse or not documenting the encounters as required, putting victims at risk of further violence.
According to a study released last week by the Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC), as many as 5,000 domestic cases a year may be going unreported.
The analysis found that domestic assaults are underreported in the department’s record management system, while the response to emergency calls involving domestic abuse is “inconsistent, largely due to the officer that takes the call.”
“It’s very consistent on the front end that the domestic violence protocol may not be followed in the way that it was intended to be followed,” said Imani Jaafar, director of the Office of Police Conduct Review (OCPR) and one of the study’s authors.
Jaafar’s office investigates allegations of police misconduct, while the PCOC, a seven-member panel of civilians appointed by the mayor and City Council, audits complaints and looks for “broad-stroke” policy issues to address.
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said the department’s practices are always evolving — including in domestic violence response. But she also questioned the study’s methodology.
“We will continue to improve and seek ways to prevent even one more victim,” Harteau said in a statement. “We are hopeful this report may help us in some way moving forward; at first glance we have serious challenges with the data, the sample size and the lack of context.”
According to the report, certain officers rarely made arrests in cases where the suspect was gone when they arrived or drugs or alcohol were involved. Others failed to submit reports, in keeping with department policy. This was potentially endangering abuse victims, the study concluded.
“This may indicate that officers are not approaching domestic assault calls with the expectation that they require an enhanced level of service and further supports the notion that domestic assaults are underreported,” the report’s authors wrote, pointing out that arrest rates in such cases were similar to those in other types of assault.
The study was based on an analysis of a random sample of 400 emergency calls that didn’t result in an arrest or written report.
The report revealed inconsistencies in the way officers responded to domestic cases, its authors said.
In one case, police were called to a dispute between two siblings, in which the sister pepper-sprayed her brother, apparently after he punched her. Neither sibling was arrested, the study said, and responding officers didn’t make a report, only noting that “everyone is friends/family again. [M]isunderstanding and with police mediation ... love is in the air.”
Current department policy doesn’t allow officers to resolve domestic disputes through mediation.
The study found a “significant” number of cases where officers gave no rationale for not making an arrest or filling out a police report, even when “allegations from a caller were serious and clearly constituted a domestic assault.”
The study cites the example of a woman who called 911 to report that her ex-boyfriend had assaulted her while armed with a gun. Yet the report police gave “no explanation of what, if anything, happened at the scene,” the PCOC study found.
But police officials said that the sample studied was too small for precise estimates.
Harteau said that reducing domestic abuse had long been a priority for the department, pointing to successful partnerships with the community-based organizations and advocacy groups like Domestic Abuse Project, Asian Women United of Minnesota, and Casa De Esperanza, which the report also acknowledges.
In 2015, the department launched a pilot program aimed at reducing domestic abuse in some of the city’s most violent hot spots. The program paired officers with domestic violence advocates to follow up on cases where there is no police report or arrest, in hopes of preventing other criminal behavior and boosting prosecution of abuse cases. The department also started training its officers to recognize signs of serial domestic abuse to help authorities build cases against offenders.
Department policy makes arrest mandatory where domestic violence is suspected, regardless of whether the alleged victim cooperates.
Support is critical
Advocates told researchers that the undercounted cases highlight the challenges they face in getting reluctant victims to report the abuse — which comes in many forms (only about a half of 911 domestic calls involved intimate partners, and only about a third involved physical assault or violence, the study found.) To address the problem, victims need to feel supported, advocates said.
“Police reports are critical even in cases that are not charged as domestic abuse because there are other potential criminal consequences that may be captured in a report,” the study said. “Without a police report, city attorneys are unable to charge stalking cases and other types of cases that involve a high level of danger for the victim.”
That was not always the case.
In a handful of cases, victims complained that officers were rude or dismissive, or failed to make a detailed report, including in at least one case swapping the identities of the victim and suspect.
One advocate quoted in the study said that recent research has shown that women in abusive relationships are far more likely to seek help if they are treated with empathy and respect, pointing out that “it often takes a woman an average of seven attempts before she fully breaks free.”
Among the recommendations made in the PCOC study were new training and revisions to the department’s body camera policy — directing officers to turn on their devices more frequently when encountering victims. The report also called for greater monitoring of domestic calls to ensure that officers and supervisors consistently report domestic-related offenses and make arrests when necessary. Such officers, the report said, were clustered in certain precincts and shifts.
In the Fifth Precinct, which covers the city’s mostly affluent southwest side, officers made arrests or reports in nearly 22 percent of all domestic-related calls, the highest percentage of all five precincts. Meanwhile, Third Precinct officers in southeast Minneapolis made arrests or reports in 15.3 percent of cases, the study found, a disparity made all the more glaring by the high volume of domestic 911 calls in southeast Minneapolis.
“Had the 3rd Precinct closed calls at the same rate as the 5th, this would have led to an additional 910 arrests or reports,” the study concluded.