On a summer night in 2016, a large man entered a cabin in Mille Lacs County uninvited. Five people were already there having dinner after a day on the lake. The man proceeded to sit at their table with them and threaten to shoot them with a firearm, slash their throats, and hit them on the head with a club. One of the five was able to sneak into another room, call law enforcement, and ask for help.
Sergeant Kyle Burton responded to the call. When he arrived, he calmly walked toward the house. He recognized the man on sight and saw that everyone else at the house appeared scared. One was motioning for him to hurry and get inside. Sgt. Burton opened a side door near where the man was sitting and told him to get up and come outside. The man tried to take a glass with him, but Sgt. Burton calmly told him to put it back because it wasn’t his. By the time another deputy arrived to assist, Sgt. Burton had already taken the suspect into custody and de-escalated a potentially dangerous situation.
Sgt. Burton’s work in this case is not unusual. All of the law enforcement agencies in Mille Lacs County take their responsibility to de-escalate hostile situations seriously. Time and again, my office has read reports that would have justified a use of force handled with much less force or no force whatsoever. Even in situations where the use of force could have been justified, officers have the courage to risk their own lives to avoid doing harm to others.
These are not the stories that make national headlines. Instead, we see headlines like: “Why does the Minneapolis police department look like a military unit?” (Washington Post, May 28, 2020) and “Many Minnesota Police Officers Remain on the Force Despite Misconduct” (Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2020).
As the County Attorney, I wanted you to know what I have seen here in Mille Lacs County during my tenure:
• When dealing with life and death situations, our officers act primarily to save lives.
• Our officers frequently use their knowledge of the community gained through multiple contacts to understand the motives and risks associated with individuals to improve public safety.
• Our officers take into account the potential mental health issues people may be experiencing when investigating crimes and evaluating the need to use force. In these situations, officers prioritize the need to help individuals address these mental health concerns.
• Our officers follow their de-escalation training and do not overreact to perceived dangers.
• Our officers do not prioritize their safety over and above the safety of potential criminals they encounter.
• When presented with circumstances that could justify threatening or using force, even deadly force, our officers often choose to risk their own safety to de-escalate conflicts instead.
Our county deputies, local police officers and state troopers have a very difficult job. They investigate crimes from disorderly conduct to murder and everything in between. Their job is to gather evidence and apprehend individuals that may eventually be facing lengthy prison sentences for hurting others. They use some dangerous tools, like firearms, to protect themselves from people who would rather hurt an officer than accept the consequences of their own actions. Report after report, I see them using these dangerous tools responsibly. Without law enforcement doing this difficult job, the court system would be blind to the injustices that occur in our communities.
I can’t speak for everywhere in the State of Minnesota, but I wanted you to know that you can be proud of our law enforcement here in Mille Lacs County.
Guest columnist Joe Walsh is the Mille Lacs County Attorney.