After three recent shootings by local officers, comprehensive use-of-force statistics remain hard to find

WEST FARGO - This week's fatal shooting here marked the third time in just over a month that an area law enforcement officer shot someone while on duty.Members of the Red River Valley SWAT Team shot Justin Dietrich, 32, on Monday, March 12, durin...
West Fargo police officers walk to the scene of an officer-involved shooting that occurred Monday night, March 12, during a standoff on 11th Street West in West Fargo.David Samson / The Forum

WEST FARGO - This week's fatal shooting here marked the third time in just over a month that an area law enforcement officer shot someone while on duty.

Members of the Red River Valley SWAT Team shot Justin Dietrich, 32, on Monday, March 12, during a standoff. A week before, a Minnesota trooper shot and wounded Melody Gray, 30, just east of Moorhead. On Feb. 10, a Clay County sheriff's deputy shot and injured Brady Adrian, 19, in a Sabin, Minn., home.

Sgt. Tim Briggeman of the Cass County Sheriff's Office said the close clustering of those officer-involved shootings could suggest a trend, though he doesn't believe more force is being used today than it was a decade ago.

"When you're looking at the use of lethal force, to me, to have two within a matter of seven days, of course it appears as though that's obviously more prevalent," he said.

But trying to determine whether officer-involved shootings are becoming more frequent in North Dakota, Minnesota or elsewhere is difficult because of the lack of comprehensive statistics on the use of force among law enforcement agencies. Even when firm numbers are published, the figures might not be complete.

That's the case with statistics from the North Dakota Attorney General's Office. Spokeswoman Liz Brocker said the only information the office has is included in its biennial report. The latest report, which covers the 2015-17 fiscal years, said the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation conducted 13 use-of-force investigations, including two that involved officer fatalities.

But those numbers only reflect incidents when the BCI was invited to help investigate, and that's up to individual law enforcement agencies, Brocker said.

"There's no requirement for them to report it to us, so it may or may not be all of them," she said.

During the 2013-15 biennium, the BCI assisted with 12 such investigations, she said.

In Minnesota, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is tasked with conducting most of the state's officer-involved shooting investigations when someone is killed or injured, according to Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Jill Oliveira. That totaled 18 investigations in 2017, she said, though that number might not be complete because the department doesn't yet have full numbers for the year from local agencies.

She said the BCA has opened five investigations so far this year, which would include the two recent officer-involved shootings in Clay County.

A Minnesota statute dictates that information be collected whenever a law enforcement officer fires a gun in the state. In 2016, that added up to 34 incidents, 26 of which happened in the course of duty or employment and eight that were the result of an accidental discharge.

Thirteen people were killed in the incidents, six were wounded, and six more weren't injured, according to the 2016 Minnesota crime report.

The statistics that each state collects and reports can vary, including what is even tracked and how it's defined. Briggeman said that's because individual agencies are largely responsible for deciding how it's reported.

In Cass County, for example, the sheriff's office requires deputies to complete a "response to resistance" report anytime an officer uses some type of force while on the job.

Briggeman said these reports are filled out whenever an officer uses a gun in the line of duty, though a report is also required when deputies use another weapon, such as a Taser or a baton.

The reports are then sent to a committee to review the circumstances and determine whether it was an appropriate use of force, the sergeant said.

The lack of nationally available statistics has been raised by Campaign Zero, an activist campaign launched in 2015 aimed at reducing police violence. A report the campaign published in September 2016 included a call for requiring comprehensive reporting of the use of force and the threat of force, saying it was one of eight policy recommendations that could help cut the number of people killed by law enforcement officers.

Briggeman said agencies are already doing what they can to track use-of-force situations and hold themselves accountable.

"Every department documents it differently," he said. "But nevertheless, every department's got it documented somewhere within their files."