Shootings spotlight ‘alarming’ jump in violence against rural Minnesota officers

Published 6:23 pm Friday, October 27, 2023

By Dan Gunderson

Five officers shot two weeks ago while serving a warrant in Benton County in central Minnesota brought to 14 the count of law enforcement officers shot this year in rural areas of Minnesota and western Wisconsin, including 12 in roughly the past six months with four killed.

That spasm of violence has put the growing dangers around rural policing into sharp focus. It’s a daily reality that is rarely examined or discussed.

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Violence against officers has risen the past few years and observers say more suspects appear willing to confront police and pull the trigger. But the numbers needed to push a conversation forward around what’s happening and how to stop it are hard to come by in rural areas.

Local leaders say that conversation needs to happen now.

“To see that number of police officers actually shot, that’s quite rare, but it is pretty alarming,” said Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association executive director Jeff Potts.

Potts said he believes the rash of violence against officers is related to recent increases in violent crime, which increased in 2020 and 2021 but fell last year. While guns are common and widely accepted in rural areas, “the willingness of those people to use them is what is concerning. That hasn’t always been the case,” he said.

“There’s unfortunately a pretty small portion of our population, but it seems to be getting larger, that are willing to go to that extent, using deadly force or trying to kill the police officers,” he added. “It’s alarming. I don’t know why that’s happening.”

The shootings include:

Two McLeod County sheriff’s deputies who were wounded by gunfire on Jan. 23 while serving a warrant in Winsted, Minn.

Two western Wisconsin police officers — Cameron officer Hunter Scheel, 23, and Chetek officer Emily Breidenbach, 32 — who were fatally shot during a traffic stop in Barron County on April 8.

An officer who was shot and wounded while serving a search warrant in Granite Falls, Minn., on April 10.

Josh Owen, 44, a Pope County deputy who was fatally shot while responding to a domestic violence call at a home in Cyrus, Minn., on April 15. Another deputy and a police officer were wounded.

Kaitie Leising, 29, a St. Croix County deputy shot and killed on May 6 while responding to a call about a potential drunk driver in a ditch near Glenwood City, Wis.

A police officer was also shot and killed in September in Algona, Iowa, about 40 minutes’ drive from the Minnesota border.

In Fargo, N.D., officer Jake Wallin died in July when three officers were shot while responding to a traffic crash.

Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association executive director James Stuart points to what he calls anti-police rhetoric in recent years is a factor in the violence.

“As we look at the total picture in a time in which law enforcement is attempting to recover from some of the most challenging times in the history of law enforcement with the riots and the chaos and the social media attacks and honestly the legislative attacks,” said Stuart.

Many rural and urban law enforcement agencies are short staffed and struggling to fill open positions. The highly publicized shootings of officers adds to the challenge of attracting new recruits to the profession, said Stuart.

“We’re going to try and remain hopeful, we’re going to remain optimistic and hope that things start to turn around,” he said. “But until we seriously try to tackle the recruitment and retention challenges due to the anti law enforcement feeling out there, I’m afraid we have to tread carefully.”

Conclusions hard to draw, answers hard to find

While law enforcement officials see a trend in the number of gun assaults on officers this year, a criminal justice researcher cautioned against oversimplifying the data.

University of Nebraska Omaha Associate Professor Justin Nix studies gun assaults on police officers. He examined shootings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. The data showed a short spike in attacks on officers but no long term trend.

The shooting of a law enforcement officer is still statistically a very rare event, and that makes understanding the data a challenge, Nix said.

“The problem with these sort of rare events, trying to track it with the data that we have, is that they can be weaponized,” said Nix, who sees organizations with different agendas highlighting data to supports their messages.

“It’s really easy to manipulate these numbers to tell any kind of story that you want. And that’s a dangerous problem, because it can lead to bad policies.”

Nix said data on fatal police shootings has improved, but much of it used by researchers is crowdsourced from media reports. A database maintained by the FBI is often not used by researchers because of delays in releasing new data, he added.

The lack of good data makes it difficult to dig deeper into the shootings in rural areas.

An online columnist writing on rural law enforcement has been building her own database for five years.

Kathleen Dias writes for a website connected to a company that offers training for law enforcement agencies. She scans media reports daily for shootings of officers across the country, and then plots the location of each event.

Her research shows rural officers account for 25 to 30 percent of police officers shot each year. But the data indicates those rural shootings are more deadly.

“The number of fatalities for officers working in rural areas was completely disproportionate,” said Dias. “The number officers who were shot in rural areas who died are as much as 50 percent or more of the total officers killed by gunfire in the nation.”

While data collection around fatal shootings has improved, statistics on less lethal assaults are murky because of inconsistent reporting of the data, said Nix.

Minnesota has seen a significant increase in those less lethal assaults on officers over the past four years. Reported assaults rose from 467 in 2019 to 1,112 in 2021 and 1,062 in 2022.

“And that spike from 2019 to 2021 is pretty incredible to go from just under 500 to just over 1,100 in a matter of two years, if we can’t dismiss that as simply noise, something something else must be going on,” said Nix.

A Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension official said there were no changes in reporting that would account for the spike in assaults on officers.

The data shows in 2021 and 2022, about half of the officer assaults were in counties outside the seven county metro. About a third of assaults happened while officers responded to disturbance or domestic dispute calls.

Nix says in order to better understand violence against officers, law enforcement needs to collect more consistent data on nonfatal assaults, which happen much more often than fatal attacks.

Potts believes the recent violence should prompt a broader conversation about how the criminal justice system punishes violent criminals, and what role mental health plays in violence.

“But there is just a larger portion of our population that seems to be willing to commit violent crimes, and law enforcement probably can’t solve that by ourselves,” he said.

“We need to continue those conversations about accountability measures and what do longer prison sentences do in terms of a deterrent for violent crime,” he added. “We’re trying to figure out how we can have those discussions here in February when our Legislature comes back into session.”