BY CAM GORDON
A new report released this spring by the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Global Rights for Women confirms that the city’s response to domestic violence calls continues to fall short.
The report, “An Institutional Analysis of the Minneapolis Police Response to Domestic Violence,” was presented to the Community Commission on Police Oversight on Aug. 7. Based on research done from 2020-2022, it reveals serious problems in the city, and a police response to domestic assault that often puts survivors at risk and does not hold violent offenders accountable.
From January 2019 to Dec. 31, 2022, according to the report, 32% of all aggravated assaults in Minneapolis were domestic assaults. There were 968 aggravated domestic assaults in 2019 and 988 in 2022. According to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, felony domestic violence cases from MPD are second in number only to drug cases in the percentage of the entire MPD caseload it receives. And in Hennepin County District Court, domestic abuse-related family cases were the most frequent type of filing from 2018-2022.
This is not a new problem in Minneapolis. In 2017, an earlier study on the police response to domestic violence cases in Minneapolis found that police officers wrote reports or made arrests in only 20% of the over 43,000 domestic violence calls that came in from 2014-2016.
“That’s far below the national average,” said Cheryl Thomas, founder and executive director of Global Rights for Women. “When I saw that statistic, I was alarmed because in so many developing countries that we work with, the police response is similar or even better.”
The current study used survivor interviews, domestic violence calls and text records, a review of existing regulations and police procedures, consultations with police personnel, ride-alongs with patrolling officers, a review of training materials, and feedback from local advocacy groups to uncover specific problems with city practices.
“We found seven gaps in the police response to domestic violence,” said Thomas. “They are serious gaps and we have talked to the chief about these gaps.”
Officers sometimes responded to victims in “ways that exhibit explicit or implicit bias related to gender, class, race/ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation,” according to the report. The researchers also found that department policies and procedures did not provide adequate guidance on expected behavior or disciplinary measures when needed. They found that victims got discouraged from calling 911 after receiving police responses that were described as impatient, biased, or adhering to negative stereotypes.
They also identified problems with investigations that included not interviewing witnesses and not collecting contact information, which made follow-up investigations difficult and unlikely.
Victims and responders were also not aware of the seriousness of assaults to the head, which are common in domestic violence cases. “It is very common for victims of domestic violence to have their heads slammed into walls and floors,” said Thomas.
The most serious risks to victim safety, however, were the failures to follow up when suspects were gone on arrival (GOA), as well as on violations of no-contact orders and assessing the high risk this poses. The report concluded that victims are vulnerable to repeated violence by abusers who have learned if they leave the scene before police arrive, no consequences will result, even if they had clearly violated no-contact court orders. Police also failed to prioritize the most dangerous offenders, and survivors experienced escalating danger by repeat GOA abusers. The report concluded that abusers “receive the damaging message that there will be no consequences if they are gone-on-arrival or violate no-contact orders.”
“It’s a very dangerous situation for women,” or other victims, said Thomas, “when abusers flee the scene before the officers are there. We learned that police officers do not attempt to locate that abuser, someone who may have actually been a felony level criminal.”
Moving forward, the plan calls for policy changes, better accountability measures and improved risk assessment.
Past efforts point to future solutions
In 2014, a GOA Response Team was created to improve the response of the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office and MPD to domestic violence cases where the suspect has fled prior to being arrested. The team consisted of a specially assigned police investigator to focus only on misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor GOA cases, advocates to provide increased support for victims, and a centralized prosecutor to review and charge all such cases. Following the creation of the team, the City Attorney’s Office was able to increase the charging rate for GOA cases by 400% while simultaneously decreasing the time from case review to resolution by over 36%. That team was disbanded prior to the current report’s study period.
In a response to a survey question asking for officer suggestions to improve the response to domestic violence, one MPD officer wrote, “MPD acts like domestic violence is important with all the stuff we are required to do on these cases. In reality, we focus more on robbers, drug dealers, and gangsters, when in fact … these are the same people committing domestic violence. Maybe our focus should be on abusers, and it would have a trickle-down effect to other violent crimes.”
The report notes that “everyone interviewed expressed concern about a staffing shortage in MPD,” and it was seen as the cause of many of the issues identified. They also found that there was a “lack of clear policy directive for patrol officers, and discouraging messages from other parts of the criminal justice system that de-prioritize domestic violence cases.”
Rhonda Martinson, a consultant with Global Rights for Women, said that she is hopeful because of the “overlap” with this report and the federal department of justice and state human rights department reports. She noted that 2018 was the last time the city provided officers with training in responding to domestic violence calls and believes that training and supervision will be critically important to addressing the gaps found in the report. She said that of the 73 officers who completed the survey almost all of them “wanted more supervision, mentoring and training.”
Thomas said that they have met with the police chief, city attorney, county attorney and City Council president, all of whom expressed interest in using the report to make improvements.
“We of course take the report seriously,” said Minneapolis city attorney Kristyn Anderson. “The City Attorney’s Office has a strong commitment to our longtime and ongoing work on issues of domestic violence.”
Some members of the Community Commission on Police Oversight were clearly impressed and concerned about the report, which they voted to receive and file. Still, no one appears to be leading the effort in City Hall. The mayor and council members did not return a request for comments on this article, and the report does not appear to be going to any council committee for a formal review.
Thomas expressed a desire to continue the work but said that additional funding would be needed if her nonprofit is to stay involved.
The size of the problem and the number of agencies and organizations involved may be both a blessing and a curse, as it means that although a lot of groups and people care about the issue, none seem to feel the responsibility to lead the search for solutions.
“We follow the coordinated community response model,” said Anderson. “This means that we work in close collaboration with our justice and community partners to determine how to best address the issues of domestic violence.”
“These issues are not something that can be addressed by just one agency,” Anderson said. “Rather, it takes several agencies to make sure the victim survivors are safe and that the offenders get the resources and support they need to create safety in their families and in the community. We are well-placed to work with our community and justice partners on the report’s recommendations.”