VNL Investigates: ND officers put pause on helping MN law enforcement due to new law

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Published: Mar. 3, 2021 at 6:28 PM CST
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - A shocking new deadly force statute for Minnesota law enforcement officers is causing confusion and concern for officers on both sides of the river tonight as it’s leaving Minnesota officers in the Valley with less back-up to call upon.

Minnesota officers were only given an eleven day heads up that the statute was going into effect, leaving agencies with little time to try to figure out how to interpret or train their officers on it.

And because we sit on the border, both Fargo and West Fargo Police, as well as the Cass County Sheriff’s Office say they have suspended all operations in the state of Minnesota for the foreseeable future. The three agencies say without the proper education on the new law, both public safety and officer safety is at risk.

“It’s frustrating and concerning. We never want to leave our other law enforcement partners feeling like they’re out on their own and that we’re not able to respond,” West Fargo Police Chief Denis Otterness said.

While it was a difficult decision, Otterness says it was a necessary one. He added it’s unclear how long it will be until Minnesota and North Dakota agencies partner up again.

“These are high-risk, high-liability situations and we have to have our staff properly trained before we ask them to go out and do the very difficult job they have to do,” Otterness said.

“I certainly don’t want to send one of our officers over there who’s involved in a deadly force scenario, and it’s found later, ‘Well, you’re in violation of Minnesota law and now you’re going to be charged with a crime.’ Whereas if the same situation happened in Fargo, they would not be charged with a crime,” Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski said.

The change means for the time being if a critical incident happens on the Minnesota side, there will be 18 less members on the SWAT team, five less on the bomb squad and four fewer members on the Metro Street Crimes Unit.

“Can you train someone to understand two different legal force standards in a second? These are very dynamic, two to three second decisions that happen and lives are at stake here,” Zibolski said.

As tough as it is, Zibolski says there will be no exceptions made, as his officer’s safety and ability to lawfully navigate the new statute in high-stress situations is the top priority.

Valley News Live dug into the new statute today to better break down just what this means and the difficult position it’s putting officers in.

Previous to this new law, Minnesota officers were able to use deadly force when they felt there was an apparent threat, but Clay County Attorney Brian Melton says that’s no longer. Instead, officers must go through a three-part test before using any force while in the middle of intense and, many times, life or death situations.

“The threat must be articulated with specificity, that’s it’s reasonably likely to occur absent the action the presence of the police officer and the threat must be countered without unreasonable delay,” Melton explained.

If that didn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone. Officers on both sides of the river tell Valley News Live they feel the same and say they don’t feel like the new law is practical, especially when going into situations with armed or suicidal individuals.

“If they go and engage that person and that person is holding a gun to their own head, but then they suddenly point it at the officer and that officer chooses to engage, that officer is in trouble or in violation of this statute because they can’t use deadly force to control an individual,” Melton explained.

Moorhead Police say they have been preparing for the possible statute change since last fall, but still have training and education to do with their officers. Both Moorhead and Clay County say if and when needed on the North Dakota side, they will still help out.

“I’m hopeful that this is a very short-term issue and that we can get the appropriate training to our staff and we can get things back to normal,” Otterness said.

Grand Forks Police tell Valley News Live they are currently in the same boat as the agencies here in the metro, but say at this time they have not made any final decisions as to how they will or will not assist their Minnesota neighbors.

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