Candles were lit in memory of Andrew Tekle Sundberg at a candlelight vigil held on July 14, 2022, several hours after Minneapolis police shot and killed him. Sundberg, who went by Tekle, was Ethiopian. Credit: Drew Arrieta | Sahan Journal

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Indigenous, Black, and Latino Minnesotans are more likely than their white counterparts to die during an encounter with law enforcement, according to a first-of-its-kind state study. 

The numbers were published in a report released by the Minnesota Department of Health in December. It analyzed 177 deaths that occurred during law enforcement encounters across the state over a five-year period. 

State health officials hope their findings will help reduce deaths among civilians and police officers during law enforcement encounters.

Indigenous Minnesotans are nearly six times more likely to die than whites during a law enforcement encounter, according to the report. Black Minnesotans are more than four times more likely to die than whites in similar scenarios, and Latino Minnesotans are twice as likely.

The racial discrepancies and death rates found in the report are largely reflective of the national average and findings from other states, said Cory Cole, the report’s lead author. But, she added, they’re nevertheless concerning. 

“What we’re seeing in Minnesota is alarming, but not altogether unexpected,” said Cole, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health. 

The state’s Asian population has the least likely chance of dying during a law enforcement encounter compared to whites. Asians make up 5 percent of Minnesota’s population and accounted for 3 percent of all deaths analyzed in the study.

Black Minnesotans make up 7 percent of the state population, but 22 percent of the deaths in the study. Indigenous Minnesotans make up 1 percent of the state, but 6 percent of the deaths. Latino Minnesotans are 6 percent of the state population, but 8 percent of the deaths. 

Whites accounted for the majority of the fatalities analyzed, making up 61 percent of the total 177 deaths. But that figure is more than 20 percentage points below their share of the state population, which is 84 percent. 

The majority of the deaths—58 percent—occurred in the Twin Cities metro area, but did not exceed the metro’s overall share of the state population. Men accounted for the vast majority of deaths at 91 percent, and the median age of the people who died was 35. 

The report’s authors analyzed data from state death certificates and three public databases: the U.S. Center for Disease and Control Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System, the online Fatal Encounters database, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s Crime Data Explorer. They looked at data from 2016 through 2021.

The report’s stated goal is to provide accurate, comprehensive data on deaths during law enforcement encounters as a first step in preventing such deaths in the future. However, the report doesn’t make judgements or opinions about whether any of the deaths were legally justified or unjustified.

“Many of these deaths are preventable, and we have more opportunities than we know to prevent them,” Cole said. 

Analyzing deaths during law enforcement encounters has been gaining traction in public health circles for the past decade, said Cole, who works in the health department’s injury and violence prevention section. 

“This is not only something that affects the person who dies in each incident, but also the other folks involved: their family, their community, sometimes the entire country,” Cole said. “It really has rippling health effects on so many people.” 

The Minnesota report goes beyond analyzing use-of-force deaths caused by law enforcement, something Cole said is unique compared to similar research in other states. In addition to use-of-force deaths, it also looked at a wide array of deaths, including accidental deaths, car collisions, and suicides. 

About 40 percent of the total deaths analyzed were the result of law enforcement using force. Suicides accounted for 31 percent of the deaths. Accidents, such as a vehicle crash during a police car chase, accounted for 22 percent of the deaths. 

The report also accounted for a police officer who was killed by a civilian who used deadly force.

State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield, one of the authors of the report, emphasized that law enforcement officers are impacted by violence during encounters. Lynfield said the report’s researchers shared their findings with the state Department of Public Safety before it was published, and are partnering with the agency to work on next steps. 

Those next steps include developing a review process that would look for the root causes of each fatality and identify ways they could be prevented. In his recommendations for the upcoming two-year state budget released this week, Governor Tim Walz proposed creating a committee to conduct such fatality reviews. The committee would work with the state Department of Public Safety, Department of Human Services, and the Department of Human Rights. 

Walz proposed allocating about $500,000 of the state budget per year to support the committee. The Legislature will ultimately have the final say on the budget, which it must pass this year.

There are also plans to hold community meetings in order to hear from people directly impacted by violence. 

The health department plans to continue tracking deaths during law enforcement encounters for the years to come.

“We all want to understand what we can do to improve the health and public safety of civilians and law enforcement officers,” Lynfield said. 

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...