Police use of force has been under increased scrutiny in recent years as calls for accountability and transparency swelled following the murder of George Floyd. It’s a measure of how often — or at least how often on record — police interactions with citizens result in things like the use of a taser, chemical irritant or body restraint.
In Minneapolis, the number of documented cases of police use of force is published on a city dashboard — and has gone way up, starting in 2020, a year of unrest and tension in Minneapolis following the police murder of George Floyd.
Explaining that increase isn’t so simple. While factors like increased crime rates and staffing challenges may have an impact on the numbers, changes in how Minneapolis defines use of force also makes year to year comparisons using the dashboard complicated.
The upward increase in use of force cases in recent years is a marked difference from previous trends. MPD’s Use of Force dashboard shows a steady decline in cases involving force by an officer from more than 1,400 in 2008 to 863 in 2013, staying below 1,000 cases involving use of force annually by an officer through 2019.
Then, the figure suddenly jumped in 2020 — going from 757 cases in 2019 to more than 1,100 the following year — and climbed even higher to more than 1,400 cases in 2021 and nearly 1,300 last year.
There are several likely reasons for the increase in numbers.
The first factor driving those numbers up is a change in the way MPD defines “use of force.” In the months following Floyd’s murder by then-MPD officer Derek Chauvin, the department changed when it required officers to report when they used force, and what parts of their duties were now part of that category. Handcuffing, escort holds – described by the MPD manual as a temporary holding of the hand, wrist, arm or shoulder to physically control someone – and gun-pointing, which officers previously only needed to add to their narrative police reports, were now required to be separately reported as uses of force by officers.
A presentation by MPD to the council about a year after the changes went into effect showed a spike coinciding with the definition changes, and that handcuffing now accounted for 85% of cases involving use of force. Escort holds were used in 29% of use of force cases, and cases involving a firearm — handgun, patrol rifle or shotgun — being unholstered or pointed made up 24%, according to the department’s analysis.
Other common types of force used are bodily force, tasers and chemical irritants. The dashboard also shows officers disproportionately used force against Black people, at nearly 57% of cases in 2020, about 60% in 2021 and nearly half in 2022. By contrast, 18.4% of the city’s residents are Black, according to Census data.
Still, the MPD presentation shows types of force not covered under these new categories up significantly in the months following Floyd’s killing.
But starting Jan. 1, a new mandate from new Chief Brian O’Hara removing handcuffing as a use of force category went into effect, and the category was subsequently removed from the dashboard.
MPD spokesman Brian Feintech said O’Hara made the decision because he views it as a control measure as opposed to a use of force.
“Somebody could willingly put on handcuffs and you would have to consider that a use of force under the old regulation,” Feintech said. “Every time you use handcuffs you’re not forcibly putting them on someone, so Chief O’Hara said that wasn’t an accurate measurement of use of force.”
Challenges of analysis
The challenge presented by the multiple changes in definitions of what was now considered use of force is in the comparison to past years — an “apples to oranges comparison,” said MPD Cmdr. Jason Case.
For example, while handcuff incidents were removed from the force-specific counts on the dashboard, they may still be counted in the year to year totals during the times the policy was in place, Feintech said.
Case said another obstacle to understanding the scope of use of force is that the dashboard lacks context surrounding use of force incidents.
“When you see an increase in force like you saw here, if you’re not understanding why that is, it can be alarming,” he said. “The challenge with reporting things out using the dashboard is that it’s a great tool to get a visual representation of the data, but sometimes in the absence of a narration or story that goes along with it, it can paint a picture that isn’t necessarily readily understandable.”
University of Minnesota sociology professor Michelle Phelps, who studies policing, echoed Case, calling the data tricky to look at and make sense of over time, in part due to the changes in reporting. But the additional factor of the unrest following Floyd’s murder that included clashes between police and protesters may have also affected the data and made it difficult to draw concrete conclusions on how officers used force.
Minneapolis saw a wave of misconduct by officers during the protests and unrest — documented by media reports, and illustrated by a surge in lawsuits and council meetings over crowd control tactics like tear gas and less-lethal rounds. Those increased interactions, along with the reporting changes and likely unreported use of force during the unrest — may have impacted the 2020 figures.
“We would expect that that would really bring up the number of use of force incidents,” she said. “Also, a lot of the force that was used during the unrest might not have been documented as well as it ought to have been or documented as fully as what was existing on the ground given the sort of state of affairs.”
Other factors may have also played a role in the difficulty to interpret the data, Phelps said. Staffing shortages following disability leaves, retirements and resignations after the unrest in 2020 should have pointed to incidents involving use of force going down. But increases in criminal activity in recent years, along with officers feeling demoralized following the unrest and efforts to dismantle the department, could have had officers reacting more aggressively on calls that are increasingly more high-risk, counterbalancing the decline in officers.
“There’s some logic to say overall total use of force should go down as the number of officers goes down, because there’s just fewer officers on the street to interact with people,” she said. “But you might also think that a department and officers who are feeling increasingly insecure, who are perhaps patrolling on their own as a response to staffing shortages, and who are feeling isolated and demoralized and attacked by the community, how those officers could be more aggressive when they do interact with people because of all of that, counterbalancing the decline in the number of officers.
“Theoretically, you could sort of make an argument why it would go up or why it would go down,” she said. “But if the way the data is reported changes over time, it’s hard to make heads or tails of it.”
Transparency and future of dashboard
Phelps said there is no national standard for how use of force data is collected. Even lethal use of force statistics don’t have a dedicated database but are crowdsourced by organizations like Blacks Lives Matter using media reports from across the nation.
“If we can’t even track how many people are killed by the police, in terms of our official sort of non-crowdsourced datasets, we certainly can’t track national data on how many times people are getting struck with a baton or how many times people are getting hit with a fist — these sort of more routine forms of police violence,” she said.
In the last decade or so, a bigger push for police accountability and an effort to shed light on police violence has bolstered the number of advocates seeking that transparency on the data front. In turn, police departments in large, more progressive cities are more likely to have been pushed by residents on transparency will provide this kind of data.
As of Tuesday, a disclaimer in red font at the top of the dashboard reads “Data collection for Use of Force has changed. The Minneapolis Police Department is enhancing this data set to include more information. New data will be available soon.”
Case said the dashboard is not currently updating due to systems updates that were done to their record management systems months ago. The department is still discussing how to integrate those changes, as well as whether to modify how officers collect that information, he said.
“We’re always evaluating the workflow around use of force because it’s one of those things that people are always very interested in, internally as well,” he said. “We’re still working on trying to figure out how that data flows into our publicly available dashboard, and if we’re going to continue to have officers fill out the force detail screen, or if we’re going to have them capture that just in the narrative.”
The process of how MPD publishes its data can be a bit of a mystery, Phelps said, but the department is out in front on providing use of force data to the public. Despite that, the department should continue to try to make the dashboard more clear without the help of infrequent presentations to city officials, she said.
“I think those kinds of breakdowns are how they can help people sort of parse the data a little bit more cleanly,” she said. “I think that’s always going to have to happen in the sort of one-off presentations — I don’t think you’re going to be able to sort of endlessly have footnotes for days on the data page every time something shifts — but try to figure out how to make that a little bit more seamless for folks.”