If you shoot someone, you’ll probably get away with it

Data: Police fail to solve nearly 8 in 10 shootings in Minneapolis

By: and - October 25, 2021 9:49 am

A Minneapolis police officer unrolls caution tape at a crime scene on June 16, 2020 in Minneapolis. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images.

Leah McGinley stood by the stage at Phelps Park in south Minneapolis, nearing the end of a five-hour event called “Drew’s Day” in memory of her brother, Andrew “Drew” McGinley. He was gunned down June 30 in the parking lot of the Elks Lodge in north Minneapolis.

She’d organized the anti-violence community event on his birthday, Aug. 4, in one of his favorite parks, where he coached kids’ baseball. 

As the feast and fun of Drew’s Day wound down, McGinley was on the mic, enticing kids with gifts to dance the Cha-Cha Slide. After the dance ended, the kids were lining up to get their gifts when shots rang out.

“It was like the most magical, magical feeling, just to see kids having fun,” Leah McGinley said. “And then you just see extreme terror.”

Henry Tyson, 51, was shot twice, but survived. 

Despite a crowd of onlookers, a victim who survived and the presence of surveillance cameras, police have made no arrests. The Minneapolis Police Department declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation. 

For now, someone has gotten away with a shooting, which happens in the vast majority of cases — nearly eight out of 10.

About 78% of the 879 shootings in Minneapolis between 2018 and 2020 haven’t resulted in any arrests or charges, according to a Reformer analysis of police department records. And just because there’s an arrest or charge in a case, doesn’t mean it’s solved.

When victims survive, like Tyson, the odds police will catch the shooter are even lower — and falling as gun violence surged and the police force shrank since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. A suspect was arrested or charged in just over 15% of nonfatal shootings in Minneapolis last year, compared to 25% in 2018.

The Minneapolis Police Department declined to make anyone available to answer questions about the department’s record on investigating shootings.

Criminologists say Minneapolis’ clearance rate — the percentage of crimes an agency solves — is typical for a large city. Detectives investigating nonfatal shootings are often impeded by limited resources, overwhelming caseloads, and victims and witnesses who won’t work with police because of mistrust or fear of retaliation.

Failing to clear these crimes can feed cycles of violence, with devastating consequences, experts say.

“The longer nonfatal shootings go unsolved, it emboldens the (bad) actors, it lessens the community’s confidence and ability to feel safe and also the ability for the police to be able to take care of business,” said Brian Harris, homicide investigations trainer and chief deputy for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. “Then (community) cooperation ceases. And when the cooperation ceases, you’re not going to be able to solve any of these crimes.”

Smaller departments juggling fewer shootings tend to clear more cases, as in cities like Rochester and Maple Grove, where someone is charged or arrested in the majority of shootings, firearm assaults and homicides. Although those departments are among the largest in Minnesota, they experience fewer of these incidents in a year than Minneapolis does in a typical month.

Adding to the problem both here and nationally: It’s almost impossible to know how many shootings across Minnesota go unsolved because agencies aren’t required to track shootings or their success solving them. Doing so is often labor-intensive, resulting in a patchwork of records. 

Some departments, like Minneapolis, do track shootings. Through a public records request, MPD sent the Reformer a list of all victims of shootings and case outcomes for 2018 through 2020.

St. Paul, on the other hand, doesn’t track how many shootings are solved or unsolved in any systematic fashion. 

Researchers say this is common but still problematic. Like a school that never tests its students, police departments that don’t track their success solving these crimes will struggle to evaluate their performance or improve outcomes. 

The St. Paul Police Department declined to make anyone available to talk about its record keeping. 

Shootings surge in summer 2020

Minneapolis, like many cities nationwide, saw a spike in gun violence last year as the pandemic dragged into the summer months, and Floyd’s murder and ensuing unrest roiled the city.

Minneapolis saw more shootings in the week after Floyd’s murder than officers typically handled in an entire month — 22 between May 25 and May 31, compared to the average of about 18 shootings per month in 2018 and 2019.

The pace accelerated for the next several months. There were 37 shootings in all of May 2020, 75 in June and 76 in July.

By the end of 2020, Minneapolis recorded more than 450 shootings — nearly twice the year before, and more than double the total for 2018 — that killed or injured more than 540 people.

As shootings spiked, the percentage of cases solved by police plummeted. About 30% of shootings in 2018 resulted in an arrest or charges — a relatively high rate for large cities. In 2020, however, about 17% of cases led to an arrest or charges. 

Rising crime rates usually strain staff and resources, resulting in lower clearance rates, said Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist. 

Adding to the challenge in Minneapolis, officers left the department last year in a wave of resignations, retirements and medical leaves. MPD, budgeted for 888 officers, was down more than 100 cops by August 2020 — more than 10% of the force. By October 2021, nearly 300 officers had left the agency or were on leave.

‘We have a crazy concept on snitching’

The Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, has worked in the community for 30 years. He said some gang members are so confident they’ll get away with shootings that they become cavalier about the crimes.

Nobody has been arrested or charged in connection with over 320 nonfatal shootings in Minneapolis in 2020 alone, making the clearance rate 15.7%. The clearance rate for fatal shootings is slightly higher — 22.7% — but some 51 fatal shootings in 2020 in Minneapolis have resulted in no charges or arrests.

Fatal shootings across the country are solved at higher rates than nonfatal shootings, said Philip Cook, a Duke University crime researcher. For example, the New York Police Department cleared 47% of gun homicides and 32% of nonfatal shootings in 2020. In Chicago, clearance rates for fatal shootings between 2010 and 2016 ranged from 26% to 46%, and 5% to 11% for nonfatal shootings.

Whether a shooting is fatal or not comes down to “luck of the draw,” Cook said. Fatal and nonfatal shootings are “virtually identical” in terms of circumstances and victims, Cook’s research shows. Nonfatal shootings should be easier to solve, because the victim can tell police who shot them — but that doesn’t always happen, he said.

Tyson, the man shot in Phelps Park, for instance, won’t cooperate with the police because he doesn’t trust them. 

Victim cooperation is one of the most important predictors of whether police solve a shooting, experts say. But in many cases, victims won’t speak with police due to concerns about retaliation, mistrust of law enforcement or lack of confidence they’ll catch the offender, a desire to seek retribution on their own, or a reluctance to “snitch.” 

“We have a crazy concept on snitching (in our community),” McAfee said.

In a 2016 survey of more than 100 Chicago inmates who had been shot, just 26% said they willingly spoke to police. Nearly a quarter, however, said police didn’t even question them about the shooting. 

“It becomes a very difficult case when your victim isn’t even willing to identify their assailant,” said Paul Belli, president of the International Homicide Investigators Association and retired Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant. “I can think back to a lot of cases where I’m pretty sure I know who committed that murder or shooting, but there just wasn’t enough evidence to actually bring charges against them.”

Steve Floyd, founder of the Agape Movement — a group of ex-gang members who do violence prevention work for the city of Minneapolis — said in an interview he was at the Drew’s Day event that day in August, along with other members of Agape, but he wasn’t there when the shooting happened. 

Several witnesses to the park shooting declined to talk to the Reformer, citing fear of retaliation.

Low clearance rates can perpetuate and intensify cycles of violence, experts say. Lack of victim cooperation makes it hard to solve cases, which fuels retaliatory violence among victims and offenders and feeds perceptions of police ineffectiveness. In what can become a literal death spiral, victims then become even less willing to work with cops, clearance rates decline — and ultimately offenders are free to repeat their crimes. 

Police sometimes have the wrong idea about the goal of the job, Cook said. He interviewed 17 detectives in North Carolina, and about half said they were serving victims. That doesn’t align with the mission of public safety, he said.

“The goal is to produce public safety, not to produce revenge for an individual victim,” Cook said. “But it’s human nature that police — faced with an uncooperative victim — would be inclined to back off and find something else to work on.”

Needed: Effort, resources and data

Improving clearance rates for shootings is a complicated problem, and there’s no easy fix, criminologists and policing experts say. 

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo recently said his investigations unit dropped from 178 active, full-time employees in 2019 to 93 now, as the city hemorrhages police officers. With fewer investigators handling more cases, the department has to be “very diligent and thoughtful in terms of the cases that are triaged,” Arradondo said.

Deputy Chief of Patrol Erick Fors told the City Council this summer that about 10 police units respond to shootings within the first 30 to 45 minutes. 

Mayor Jacob Frey has proposed a $192 million 2022 MPD budget — a 17% increase over 2021. Still, it’s smaller than the 2020 police budget after cuts were made due to pandemic-related revenue shortfalls.

Limited time and resources hamper investigators’ abilities to solve nonfatal shootings, researchers say. Cook co-authored a study that found clearance rates for fatal and nonfatal shootings in Boston were identical two days after the incidents — about 10%. After that, police cleared an additional 32% of homicides and just 8% of nonfatal shootings.

The difference came down to sustained effort and resources in murder investigations, Cook said.

Fatal shootings are usually investigated by homicide detectives who tend to have smaller caseloads and better access to resources like crime labs. Nonfatal shootings may be assigned to investigators with overwhelming caseloads that include crimes like burglaries and other assaults, researchers say.

“Homicides are almost easier to work versus nonfatal shootings, simply because they’re a priority,” Harris, the law enforcement trainer, said. “And if you’re in a high homicide year, unfortunately those nonfatal shootings may not even be worked.”

The Denver Police Department and Connecticut’s Hartford Police Department both established teams focused exclusively on shootings in the past two years and have seen clearance rates rise significantly, said Lisa Barao, a Westfield University criminal justice researcher. So far this year, Hartford’s clearance rate is four times higher than in 2020.

“It seems to me that (MPD) has to increase capacity to investigate these cases, and that’s ultimately going to mean more people,” Rosenfeld, the University of Missouri criminologist, said. “Supervisors have to require that these investigations go the full mile, and (victims and witnesses) can be visited repeatedly and given assurances.”

Rosenfeld said implementing “constructive reforms” supported by communities affected by gun violence is also important. 

“What the community seems to be calling for is fairness in the way people are treated by police” and responses by trained city workers to some calls for service, rather than police, he said. “If Minneapolis were effective in doing that and involved community members in the reform effort, then police-community relations over time should improve.”

Another key step in solving shootings: Tracking data to understand trends in violence and evaluating police effectiveness, researchers say. It’s a complicated and time-consuming task, however, and many departments in Minnesota and across the nation don’t keep records of shootings at all.

The Reformer requested records of shootings or assaults and homicides involving guns from Minnesota’s 10 largest police departments. Six of them had to manually compile the data, and four already maintained shooting databases: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Brooklyn Park. Of those, however, only Minneapolis recorded and regularly updated outcomes for cases prior to 2020. 

Agencies that submit crime stats to the federal government are required to track homicides and aggravated assaults involving a firearm, but assaults also include incidents in which a victim was beaten with a gun, shot at but not hit or threatened with a firearm. Even when agencies do keep records of shootings, data quality varies widely, Rosenfeld said. 

“It’s hit or miss — there’s a few cities that can (produce these records),” said Cook, of Duke University. “The idea of being able to do that at a state level is a dream. I certainly think it would be much better for planning purposes and evaluation purposes if we actually knew the metrics.”

St. Paul provided a list of shooting victims but does not systematically track case outcomes. Rosenfeld said that sounds like an example of “faulty record-keeping.” 

“If they’re going to count (shootings), they should count those that result in an arrest,” Rosenfeld said.

Witnesses, a survivor and cameras — can they solve it?

The August memorial for Andrew McGinley was held in Phelps Park because he had started a Saturday morning youth baseball program there. 

“He knew what it brought to him as a young person,” Leah McGinley said. “He wanted to see that brought back to the kids in the community.”

He wanted to help kids who were involved with gangs, said his aunt Kathleen McGinley. 

Henry Tyson, who would become yet another Minneapolis shooting victim, showed up toward the end of the event. 

How was the McGinley family connected to Tyson? 

“Our family is complex,” Leah McGinley said, sighing.

She grew up in south Minneapolis, and said it was a blessing and a curse to be part of a family with a propensity to take in people who need help. They got it from her grandmother, who adopted and fostered kids and ran a group home in St. Paul.  

“We can’t offer much, but what we do have, we’re willing to give,” Leah McGinley said.

Her family is large and well-known. Her aunt — who is like a second mother to her — took in a child who needed stability. That child’s older brother is Henry Tyson, who was convicted of murder as a teenager in 1990.

Tyson was tight with Andrew McGinley, talking daily, she said. After Andrew’s murder, Tyson was “grieving in the raw” on social media and making disrespectful, threatening comments in the weeks leading up to the Phelps Park memorial.

His tirade prompted chatter on the street. So he was asked not to attend the memorial, and he stayed away — until the end, when he strolled over from 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.

Tyson said in an interview he is a gang leader and believes Andrew McGinley was shot to lure him back to Minnesota from Florida, so he could be targeted here.

Tyson said he knows who is responsible for assaulting and shooting him, but he won’t tell the police. 

Leah McGinley said everybody knows who did it.

“I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I know exactly who did it. I know exactly how it went down,” based on what witnesses told her, she said.

After the shooting, Tyson was driven to a hospital, while the park police interviewed people about what happened and looked for shell casings, Leah McGinley said. 

Park Police spokesperson Robin Smothers said they responded at 7:53 p.m. to a report of shots fired as a man was breaking up a fight.

A Minneapolis police report obtained through a public records request says police responded at 9:50 p.m. It’s not clear why they didn’t respond until two hours after the park police. The MPD report says the victim was “self-transported” to a hospital and there was “some” suspect information.

Tyson was quickly released from the hospital, which he flaunted on social media, Kathleen McGinley said.

Leah McGinley suspects witnesses have been quiet because they mistrust police. Floyd, the Agape founder, said from what he’s heard, the Phelps Park incident was “just a regular community fight” and people on the streets may have seen things, but they aren’t talking. 

Even if police are unable to persuade the victim or the witnesses to cooperate, there are surveillance cameras in the park that could help identify the shooter.  

The data, however, suggests Tyson’s assailant will likely get away with it.


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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.

Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.