Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota's annual report on crime came out last week. It's based on data that law enforcement agencies provided in 2021 to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to meet state and federal requirements.
The headline news was a 21% jump in violent crime year over year, continuing a trend that began in 2020. How you look at the numbers can affect your perception. Percentage increases can be dramatic when comparative numbers are relatively small. There were 17,631 reports of violent crime in 2021 out of a population of 5.7 million. From that Minnesotans can know intuitively that their individual risk is low, especially if they are careful about their behavior. But they also know that aside from the obvious effect on victims, crime has a long tail for society, so any alarming change in trends demands attention.
Still, the data in what is formally called the Uniform Crime Report goes far beyond the headline focus. Much of it is unsurprising, but stark nonetheless. Some of it is interesting for what it may imply.
- Nearly three-quarters of homicide offenders were male. Nearly three-quarters of their targets were, too. Homicides were up 8.7% year over year.
- Nearly three-quarters of offenders in aggravated-assault cases were male, and nearly half of their victims were female. There were 10,967 reports of aggravated assaults in 2021, up 33.7%. The category can be loosely defined as consisting of attacks resulting in serious bodily injury or presenting the risk of it.
- Statewide, homicides are "cleared" — meaning that at least one person was turned over to the court system for prosecution — about 60% of the time; aggravated assaults, about 40%.
- About two-thirds of homicide offenders were Black, as were a similar proportion of victims. Black residents make up 7.4% of the population in Minnesota. The racial distribution in aggravated assaults — both victims and perpetrators — was more even, though still must be compared against population size. These are inconvenient truths for a society trying to balance racial and criminal justice, including the role of police. The Star Tribune Editorial Board believes both goals can be met, though talk of causes and solutions often breaks down into ideological camps.
- A handgun or firearm was used in the majority of homicides. Most killings took place on a road or sidewalk; the second-most, in a residence.
- Nearly half of rape victims were under 18. Offenders were evenly disbursed across age groups. Females were the victims in 9 cases out of 10, and males were the offenders in a similar proportion. The offenders were white about half the time, as were the victims. The number of reported rapes increased by 11.25% year over year.
- Drug violations and DUIs dominated the list of offenses in which arrests were made. Others, like animal cruelty, gambling and peeping, represent a sliver of the arrests. A natural question: Does this reflect the frequency of the respective crimes, or their visibility, or enforcement priorities?
- Among drug arrests, marijuana was the substance in question about 30% of the time, topping the list. Categories related to methamphetamines and substances with methlike effects came next. According to separate, provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 32,856 meth overdose deaths nationally in 2021. According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency fact sheet from 2020, "no deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported." (Whether marijuana use is free of harm, however, is a dubious proposition and a broader subject.)
- The decline in the number of police officers on the job in Minneapolis has been much-discussed. It's visualized dramatically in a chart on page 62 of the report. That trend likely contributes to the following data points: The number of sworn police officers in municipal departments was 1.7 per 1,000 for cities with more than 250,000 people in Minnesota, compared with 2.1 per 1,000 in cities with fewer than 2,500 people. But the rates for both the largest and smallest cities exceeded those for most population sizes in between. The rate was lowest for cities of between 50,000 and 100,000 people, at 1.1.
- The greatest numbers of police pursuits take place between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., with the highest rate during the midnight hour. Most lasted less than five minutes. About 58% resulted in no property damage, but when damage occurred it involved the violator's vehicle or squad cars about 82% of the time. More than 98.5% of the time, the pursuit resulted in no injuries. Males were the suspected violators being pursued about two-thirds of the time.
There are caveats when considering this type of data. The information is self-reported by law enforcement agencies, with possible variations in how it's done. "Other" is a significant presence in many categories. Some crimes have multiple victims. And there's always a risk in drawing broad conclusions from a cursory look at a snapshot in time.
Still, Minnesotans can be grateful for the collection and reporting of this information, and for the understanding it can bring. It's only getting better, with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension having launched a new public database called the Minnesota Crime Data Explorer (www.cde.state.mn.us) in 2021.