Minnesota officers killed in duty, including those killed in Burnsville, are honored during National Police Week

Published 7:12 am Friday, May 17, 2024

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By Cari Spencer

Thomas Larson was in his late twenties, in the beginning days of raising young children and starting a dental career, when he got the call.

His older brother, St. Paul Police Officer John Larson, had died in a traffic accident. The young officer was hit by another emergency response vehicle, both rushing to respond.

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That was 50 years ago. On Wednesday, sitting with dozens of other family members of deceased officers, Larson, now 89 years old, listened to a single bell toll in honor of his brother. An additional 31 bell tolls at Mears Park honored the other St. Paul police officers who have died in duty.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see this, but it’s quite an honor to see him honored,” said Larson, who remembered his brother as a “character” with a deep love for his job.

“All the years I’ve attended this, I think this is the first time they’ve recognized that kind of anniversary. It’s not one that you want to see, but it’s nice that they remember,” he said. “It’s important for the families that they remember.”

This year’s Peace Officers Memorial Day service was also the 30th to honor officers Ron Ryan Jr. and Tim Jones, as well as K-9 Laser, who were shot and killed in 1994.

Set against birdsong and choral music, the service carried an extra sober note, coming almost two weeks after St. Paul police responding to a suicide call shot and killed a woman who had raised a gun — and while memories of the three first responders shot and killed responding to a domestic violence call in Burnsville earlier this year remain fresh.

Police Cmdr. Chris Kasal, who led the ceremony, honored officers Paul Elmstrand, Matthew Ruge and firefighter paramedic Adam Finseth, the Burnsville first responders.

“These heroes and their surviving families are also a part of our St. Paul family that gave their lives in much the same way so many of our St. Paul heroes did while trying to help protect and defend others and keep their city safe,” Kasal said.

Mayor Melvin Carter thanked the families of law enforcement and spoke about his father, a retired St. Paul police sergeant. One of the officers honored — John O’Brien — was his father’s close friend, Carter said, and hearing stories about him were formative in his childhood.

“We grew up every day, praying for the safety of the men and women in our police department. We would know when we saw something scary on the news that dad was involved in the search for a suspect or was in a tight situation,” Carter said.

President John F. Kennedy designated May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day in 1962 and designated the entire week as National Police Week. Support for law enforcement has been visible this week, with Gov. Tim Walz ordering flags fly half-staff Wednesday. A silent vigil was held at the Minnesota Capitol Wednesday, honoring the more than 300 officers who have died on the job in Minnesota.

But Minnesotans’ relationship with law enforcement is not so straight forward. While 71 percent of white Minnesotans report they trust in police to do what is right, that number drops to 43 percent for Black, Indigenous and people of color, according to an American Public Media survey.

“The sense of fragility that police officers feel when they patrol and protect and serve in our communities is the other side of the coin, of the sense of fragility that community members may feel when they see a squad car in their rearview mirror,” Carter said.

The Star Tribune reported in February that assaults against police have increased 160 percent from ten years ago, most frequently while responding to domestic disturbance calls, based on Bureau of Criminal Apprehension data.

So far this year, the BCA has responded to 14 use-of-deadly-force investigations, a representative said. Last year, the BCA investigated 18 incidents in which officers used fatal force, resulting in 10 deaths. Thirteen of those involved firearms. Since 2020, 41 Minnesotans have been shot and killed by police.

“When we think about some of those traditional models of policing that we’ve inherited in America and we look back the last couple of generations, they serve our communities really poorly. And we know that,” Carter said. “I think we fail to discuss enough the fact that they’ve served our officers really poorly as well, we can improve all of it together.”