No other law enforcement agency in Minnesota has used deadly force more often over the past six years than St. Paul police.
Beginning in 2009, St. Paul officers have shot and killed 11 men, nine of whom were people of color. By comparison, Minneapolis police were involved in at least four fatal shootings, according to state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension data.
In every St. Paul case, police said the suspect posed a threat to officers or the public.
“I believe our decisionmaking is very good,” said David Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, which represents every St. Paul officer involved in a shooting. “It’s the suspect’s actions that dictated an officer’s response.”
But now, just weeks after the fatal shooting of a 24-year-old black man near the State Capitol, and against the national backdrop of increased tension and scrutiny of fatal encounters between police and black men, community leaders are asking hard questions about the department’s use of deadly force and whether any of those killings could have been avoided.
“Did all of these 11 people have to die?” asks Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “What is it about these encounters that is different from 20 years ago?”
Law enforcement officials say the reasons for the spike aren’t clear. But what is certain is that fatal shootings by police across Minnesota are on the rise — 46 people were killed from 2009 through 2013, more than twice as many as were killed in the five years prior, according to BCA data.
From 2004 through 2008, St. Paul police shot and killed only two people; Minneapolis police killed four. But BCA data may not be complete because agencies report their own shooting totals to the state.
Some believe the uptick in St. Paul reflects an increasingly distrustful and aggressive relationship between communities of color and police — problems that could lead to more fatal encounters. More guns, mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse also have made the streets more dangerous, officials say.
“There are only going to be more of these unfortunately because people are at a more heightened state than they were ever before,” said Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP. “You have a paralyzed police force and then you have a community who is on high alert.”
Checking for patterns
The 11 fatal shootings since 2009 occurred in neighborhoods across the city. Suspect weapons included guns, knives, rocks and automobiles. The race of suspects killed varied — six were black, two were white, two were Asian and one was Hispanic.
Of the 28 officers involved, two were shot, another suffered facial fractures. At the time of the shootings, some had been on the job only a few years while others had been wearing a badge for decades.
Three officers — Adam Bailey, Jeffrey Thissen and Joshua Raichert — were each involved in two fatal shootings over the years examined. Raichert was later awarded the department’s Medal of Valor. Bailey received it, too — twice. The medal is the highest honor bestowed on an officer who, “conscious of danger … distinguishes himself by the performance of an act of gallantry and valor at imminent personal hazard to life, above and beyond the call of duty,” according to the department’s historical society.
David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said differences in officer marksmanship skills and the guns used might partly explain the increase in fatal officer-involved shootings. So, too, could the number of shots fired and the speed in which officers get to a crime scene — the sooner they arrive, the greater the odds of confronting a suspect who has yet to flee.
Or, “it could just be random,” said Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who, early in his career, shot and killed a black man who had attacked his partner with a knife.
Professors say that, statistically, the number of officer-involved shootings is too small to draw conclusions about patterns. It also makes it difficult to say what might have prevented the killings.
“The difference between a deadly shooting and a non-deadly shooting oftentimes is a matter of luck or a matter of a couple of inches and the direction a bullet travels,” said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. “I think, above all else, that when you are trying to decide whether a particular incident was justified or not, the details matter.”
Many details surrounding last month’s killing of Marcus Golden have yet to be released. What St. Paul police have said, however, is this:
In the early morning darkness of Jan. 14, two officers drove to a high-rise apartment building on the 200 block of University Avenue on a call about a man who was known to carry a gun, and who was texting death threats to a former girlfriend.
They found Golden, 24, sitting in his SUV behind the building. The officers began talking with him, then ordered him to step out of the vehicle and shut off the engine. He refused, then hit the gas. As he sped toward one of the officers, they opened fire, killing him. Police later said they found a loaded handgun within Golden’s reach.
Within hours, Martin, nodding to recent police-involved killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City, called for an independent investigation.
A day later, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and community leaders agreed to ask outside auditors to review the police-civilian board that investigates citizen complaints against police, including instances when an officer uses deadly force in the line of duty. A grand jury first reviews fatal officer-involved shootings to decide whether charges should be filed.
Coleman’s office said the timing of the agreement was not influenced by the Golden shooting. It was hammered out in the aftermath of a 2014 incident captured on video showing St. Paul police tasing and arresting an unarmed black man in the city’s downtown skyway system.
“Anytime there’s a shooting involving an officer … it’s tragic for everyone involved,” Coleman said recently. “But if you look at the shootings where St. Paul officers were involved, it was very clear that the officers were acting within the scope of their training.”
But Samuelson wonders. He points out that police stop and question black people more often than white people for minor crimes. If officers expect a confrontation when they make a stop, he asked, could that skew how they perceive a threat?
“We need to take a really deep breath here and ask, ‘Is there a way our peace officers are interacting with certain communities?’ ” Samuelson said. “And are there things we can do to reduce the aggressive tension?”
Last week, state legislators took steps to add a layer of impartiality to investigations of “police-related deaths” by introducing a bill that would require scrutiny of those cases by at least two investigators from an outside agency.
“This is a very complex web,” said Tanya Gladney, a University of St. Thomas professor and former police officer who teaches about police and society.
If people suspect injustice, she said, trust is lost.
Minnesota statute allows police to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from apparent death or great bodily harm, or to prevent the escape of a person who used or threatened deadly force against others. Police can shoot someone if they believe that person is a danger to cause death or great bodily harm if they are not stopped.
But in the heat of the moment, officers have very little time to make those decisions, said Mike Ardolf, who trained officers while with the BCA and the St. Paul Police Department, and who was involved in two nonfatal shootings as a St. Paul officer.
“The bottom line is that the officer has a matter of seconds to make a decision of what the perceived threat is at the time and then respond to it,” he said.
Over the past decade, that threat has escalated, police and others say.
In the five years that Thomas Smith has been St. Paul police chief, department officers have been involved in eight shooting deaths. Smith attributes the spike to several factors: more guns on the street, more police interactions with the mentally ill, and more people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In 2012, he said, police recovered nearly 600 firearms — a record for the department.
“That has made our job much more dangerous,” he said.
Police have responded in recent years by making improvements to training, including establishing better ways to smooth encounters with people who are mentally ill.
William Finney, who started as a St. Paul officer in 1971 and became the state’s first black chief in 1992, said police cannot afford to wait for a person with a weapon to assault them before they are ready to act.
In the 12 years Finney was chief, six-shot .38-caliber revolvers gave way to .9mm semi-automatic pistols that hold 15 or more bullets per clip, and squad cars that once had a shotgun now carry assault rifles. Training too, he said, became focused on “situational awareness.”
“You have to prepare yourself for battle,” he said.
‘Crescendo of danger’
Even with better training and weapons, Smith said, there is only so much police can do to prepare for volatile situations.
In 2010, officer David Longbehn was manning a police perimeter when the suspected killer of Maplewood police Sgt. Joe Bergeron approached. The man hit Longbehn in the face with a cloth-covered bolt as he was being frisked. The two men fought before Longbehn shot and killed him.
“How do you train for that?” Smith asked.
Bob Fletcher, a former Ramsey County sheriff, longtime St. Paul police officer and a former St. Paul City Council member, said the August shooting death of Mendota Heights officer Scott Patrick and the recent shooting of two officers at New Hope City Hall point to why police may be more on edge.
“How can you not be?” Fletcher said. “It’s a crescendo of danger.”
It is that mind-set — the expectation of violence toward police — that may set the table for these incidents, Samuelson said.
He points to the Golden call as an example. Golden had a history of troubling and threatening behavior, including a 2012 conviction for transporting a loaded firearm during a dispute involving an ex-girlfriend.
“This is a guy who probably deserves to be in jail. That’s fine,” Samuelson said. “But the dispatcher says ‘This guy is known to carry a gun.’ These cops are now on the alert.
“These guys are scared, and they are hyper-alert, and everything this guy does is going to trigger their responses.”