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It just got a lot easier to know how often the Minneapolis police are using force on people

A new data dashboard gives citizens quick access to data on when and why police use force against civilians in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the dashboard is the first of its kind in the state, and a continuation of department efforts to bring data about the way it polices the city to light.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul

In many parts of the state and the country, people who want basic information about police officers who use force against civilians have to go through a formal process that usually takes a long time and sometimes even costs money.

Not in Minneapolis anymore. On Tuesday, the Minneapolis Police Department began publishing a data dashboard that offers a bird's eye view of when and how officers have used force from 2008 to present.

Among the biggest revelations from the new data: use of force by Minneapolis cops declined by more than a third between 2008 and 2016, from an average of four incidents per day to 2.6. Black people make up more than 60 percent of people subject to police use of force, and officer-involved shootings, which have jumped from as many as seven per year in 2008 and 2012 to as few as one in 2010, show no apparent rise or fall.

The Minneapolis Police Department defines use of force as the use of physical contact, a  substance, an object or an animal that causes pain or injury, striking any body part of another person, or restraint applied in a way likely to cause injury. Officer-involved shootings are included on a separate data portal, also released Tuesday.

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The department authorizes use of “reasonable force” when an officer is lawfully arresting a person, executing a legal process, enforcing a court order or “executing any other duty imposed upon the public officer by law.” The dashboard doesn’t specify whether a given use of force incident was found to be reasonable or unreasonable.

Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said the dashboard is the first of its kind in the state, and a continuation of department efforts to bring data about the way it polices the city to light. In recent months, the department has made data on police stops, crime and arrests available on its website.

“We have held onto the people’s data for far too long in policing, and my goal is to continue to release as much of that as possible,” he told reporters at City Hall Tuesday.

What we know now

Minneapolis’ dashboard breaks down use of force incidents by neighborhood, type of force used, type of action that prompted the use of force, the races, genders, ages and offenses committed by the subjects of force and whether or not the subjects were injured. It does not include information that identifies officers involved in the incidents.

Overall, use of force has gone down, from 1,488 incidents in 2008 to 951 last year. As of Thursday evening, so far this year there had been 761 use of force incidents, on track to come in lower at the end of this year than last.

Minneapolis Police Department use of force incidents by year, 2008-2017
Overall, the number of use of force incidents involving Minneapolis police has declined since 2008. Figures for 2017 reflect the total for the year so far, not the full calendar year.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

MPD said it’s not clear, without doing a deep dive into the data, why use of force incidents are down. But in an email, police spokesman Scott Seroka offered a few possibilities.

For one thing, the Republican National Committee and accompanying protests were held in the Twin Cities in 2008, which may have increased the number of use of force cases that year; training may have contributed to fewer use of force incidents; surveillance, personal and body cameras may have been a factor (research supports the body camera theory, though the technology wasn’t rolled out to everyone in the department until the latter half of 2016); MPD officers are, according to the department, long-term trends show officers increasingly de-escalating situations; new officers with different training joining the force; officers may be doing less proactive work that might result in use of force.

Crime rates in Minneapolis also declined between 2008 and 2016, according to the state’s uniform crime reports.

Bodily force, which includes things like takedowns, punching and kicking, was by far the most common use of force reported in the dashboard, making up 71 percent of cases in use of force reports so far this year. Chemical irritants followed, used in 15 percent of reports. Tasers were used in 8 percent, gunpoint displays in 2 percent and improvised weapons in less than 2 percent of reports.

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Type of force used by Minneapolis police, 2017
Bodily force, which includes things like pushing a person against a wall, takedowns, punching and kicking, was the most common type of force used by Minneapolis police.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

What were the reasons police gave for using force? In 2017, the most common reason cited was that the person tensed (which generally refers to stiffening up to resist the efforts of an officer),  followed by the use of force against someone actively committing a crime and, third most common, verbally refusing to comply with the officer.

Reasons for use of force, 2017
Tensing, which refers to resisting the efforts of an officer, was the most common type of resistance used by the subjects of police force.
Source: Minneapolis Police Department

The dashboard also provides information about the age, gender and race of people who police use force against. In 2017, 62 percent of police uses of force targeted black people  — a number that’s stayed relatively stable over time. 18 percent of Minneapolis’ population is black. White people (more than 60 percent of Minneapolis’ population) made up 23 percent, American Indians (about 1 percent of Minneapolis’ population) made up 5 percent, and Asians made up 2 percent of incidents (compared to 6 percent of Minneapolis’ population).

While those numbers raise questions about whether people of some races are disproportionately targeted by cops, experts caution against drawing conclusions about race and policing from data like these without analysis.

More than three-quarters of 2017 use of force incidents in Minneapolis involved men, and people in their late-teens through twenties were most often involved in the incidents.

Informing decisions with data

With technology making it easier for departments to make tools like the Minneapolis Police Department’s new dashboards accessible to the public, plus increased interest in police oversight, it’s heartening to see police departments increasing their efforts at transparency, said Seth Stoughton, commenting on the release of police stop data last month. He’s a former police officer and assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

But if the goal is to improve policing, those efforts are as good as departments’ efforts to analyze the data and put it to use, helping officials make decisions about things like training and department policy, he said.

Arradondo said the department is using the data to inform policy: every time there is a use of force incident, supervisors take note, internal affairs investigators review the incident, and information on the incident is provided to department executives.

“We will look at everything from informing us in terms of policy, training, coaching,” he said. If needed, the officer is disciplined, and if applicable, the incident is reviewed to help inform the department’s early behavior early intervention and performance management.

Arradondo said that by releasing data on use of force, he hopes to advance three department goals: building trust, accountability and professionalizing the service the department does. He also said releasing the information would relieve the workload for the department’s public records unit, which becomes overloaded with requests, particularly in the wake of use of force incidents.

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“It is important that our officers continue to be trained in de-escalation and that we have policies that reflect that,” Arradondo said. “There are going to be times, however, when an officer is only left with that last-resort option of using force.”

Click here to explore MPD’s data dashboards yourself.