As Police Week honors fallen officers, concern over increased assaults on Minnesota cops

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With four law enforcement officers fatally shot in Minnesota and western Wisconsin in a recent one-month span, memorial services this week for fallen officers are taking on more poignancy.

National Police Week is when officers who died in the line of duty are honored and remembered. It also comes at a time when assaults against officers in Minnesota have been up: More than double were reported last year compared to 2019, according to state data.

“We have observed over the last many years, the amount of vitriol that has been directed toward our officers, deputies throughout the state and the country,” said Todd Axtell, the recently retired St. Paul police chief. “… There are no other professions in public service where you have to wear a bullet-resistant vest when you go to work, so the stakes are high.”

People in the field cited various reasons why they believe attacks on officers have increased — worsening tensions, particularly since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer in 2020; an increase in violent crime that affects community members and also officers; and more guns in the hands of people who shouldn’t have them because they’re felons or mentally ill.

4 officers killed in region

Deliberate killings of officers across the U.S. rose from 46 in 2020 to 73 in 2021. There were 61 last year, according to the FBI.

In Minnesota last month, Pope County Deputy Josh Owen was fatally shot while responding to a domestic violence call. Two other law enforcement officers were shot and wounded during the incident. The suspect was killed in the shootout.

The last time an officer was murdered by gunfire in Minnesota before Owen was Red Lake Tribal Police officer Ryan Bialke in 2021. Before that, Aitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Sandberg was fatally shot in 2015 and Mendota Heights Officer Scott Patrick in 2014, according to the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association.

In Western Wisconsin, there were three tragedies this month and last. St. Croix County sheriff’s deputy Kaitie Leising died in a shootout on May 6, and two officers were fatally shot in neighboring Barron County on April 8: Chetek Officer Emily Breidenbach and Cameron Officer Hunter Scheel.

At the St. Paul Police Department’s annual ceremony Wednesday to honor the city’s fallen officers, Mayor Melvin Carter and Police Chief Axel Henry reflected on the somberness of the day and the recent killings of officers in the region.

“It seems that we bore witness to that trauma … all too much just in the past several weeks,” Carter said. “It’s a reminder for us all that our work of assuring the safety of our community, our work of assuring the safety of our families and our work of assuring the safety of our police officers is never complete.”

Mirrors community violence

After 467 assaults were reported on officers in Minnesota in 2019, the number jumped to 794 in 2020. There were 1,117 assaults reported in 2021 and 1,062 last year, according to data reported from individual law enforcement agencies to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

There have been six officers wounded in shootings in Minnesota this year, according to the BCA.

Most of the assaults last year and in 2021 resulted in minor or no injuries, the Minnesota reports show. More than 20 officers in both 2021 and 2022 sustained a major injury, possible broken bones or internal injuries, or severe laceration.

Nationally, assaults on officers increased in 2020 — there were 60,105 reports compared with 56,034 in 2019, according to FBI data. As of 2021, the most recent information available, the number had fallen to 43,649 assaults on officers around the U.S.

Justin Nix, associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha, has studied fatal and non-fatal firearm assaults against officers. He and other researchers found a three-week spike in firearm assaults on police after Floyd was killed, “after which the trend in firearms assaults dropped to levels only slightly above that which were predicted by pre-Floyd data,” according to their paper published in the journal “Criminology.”

From 2014 to 2019, firearm assaults against officers in Minnesota were below the national average, according to their research.

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Nix said in an interview that there’s been a slow uptick nationally in the number of firearm assaults on officers since 2018, which “closely mirrors changes in community violence that we’ve seen in the last few years, where there have been more homicides and more shootings.”

“When police are asked to police a more dangerous or more violent society, then it follows that interactions on the average are going to be more dangerous and more apt to be met with resistance or even aggression,” Nix said.

When people don’t trust the police, they’re also less likely to be cooperative with them, he added.

Nix suggests that law enforcement agencies can take measures that include having officers carry tourniquets, which can save lives of both community members and officers who are injured, and finding ways to regain legitimacy, including by solving more crimes.

‘Heart just drops’

Backing the Blue Line, a nonprofit organization for spouses and significant others of officers in Minnesota, prepares blue roses for officers murdered in the line of duty, along with officers who die of accidents in the line-of-duty or from medical emergencies.

“Every time you hear about it, your heart just drops,” said Shanna McArthur, the group’s memorial rose director and the wife of a St. Paul officer. “It makes you stop and pause because it’s not your reality right now, but one day it could be and that’s really hard.”

Looking after officers’ wellness and safety needs to be at the top of the priority list for police administrators, said Axtell, who now runs the Axtell Group, a public safety and security crisis management consulting firm.

“Taking care of the people who take care of us is critical,” he said of officers, including their mental health.

When Axtell was St. Paul police chief, he announced in November 2020 that each officer would have a mandatory, confidential wellness consultation each year, a practice that’s still in place. Axtell said at the time that with the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest that followed Floyd’s death, he was hearing from officers about “how stressed out they are and how under the microscope they feel.”

Jeff Potts, Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director, said a priority this legislative session was securing funding for mental health treatment for officers experiencing PTSD from what they face on the job, and legislation has been moving forward.

As the representative of a union of 7,000 police, fire, dispatch, corrections and support staff in Minnesota, Law Enforcement Labor Services Executive Director Jim Mortenson said there needs to be more accountability in the criminal justice system for people committing violent crimes, both against community members and officers.

“We have to have leaders supporting law enforcement — not just saying the words, but actual actions,” Mortenson said.

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