Minnesota law enforcement agencies have historically refused to disclose video footage of officer-involved shootings early in a case, repeating a similar refrain: Doing so could taint the investigation into whether officers acted legally in killing someone.
But that may be slowly changing as scrutiny here and across the country forces authorities to modify long-held practices.
St. Paul police are debating whether to divulge footage to the public before a grand jury convenes, and three officers vying to become the next chief say they’re open to the idea. Whoever gets the job will likely be affected.
In Minneapolis, Police Chief Janeé Harteau recently said she’ll consider disclosing videos in the future if they won’t compromise an investigation. Her department’s fatal shooting of Jamar Clark last November led to major protests and demands for footage from that night.
“People tend to create a narrative they want to create, and the sooner we can release the videos along with the facts, the better,” said Harteau, who spoke generally and not about the Clark case because it remains under investigation.
Authorities need to take that bold step to maintain the community’s trust, said former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, who, during his tenure, released three videos before investigations were complete.
“If you have a city that’s starting to burn down and you have something you can show them, get it out,” Dolan said. “I think that’s part of public service.”
Why others haven’t follow Dolan’s example in the face of speculation and public unrest is unclear. At stake, law enforcement officials say, is the delicate balance between keeping the public informed and conducting a fair, thorough investigation.
St. Paul police announced last week that in a break with tradition, they will now ask the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) or the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office to investigate when one of their officers kills or seriously injures a civilian.
For the first time ever, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi’s office issued a three-page memo in January summarizing the evidence when a grand jury cleared two St. Paul officers in last year’s fatal shooting of Justin T. Tolkinen.
“You’ll see what we release evolve,” Choi said of his office’s effort to improve transparency. “We’ve been talking about this at great length.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said when a grand jury clears officers, he’ll post all evidence from the investigation on his website. If criminal charges are filed, evidence is confidential until the case’s conclusion.
Clark’s shooting is a classic example of how speculation can pit law enforcement against the public. Activists have called for the video depicting Clark’s encounter with police, claiming that he was handcuffed when he was shot. The police union president has denied that account.
Across the nation, authorities are disclosing footage sooner than later. On Jan. 28, the FBI circulated airplane footage showing Oregon State Police troopers fatally shooting Robert “LaVoy” Finicum just two days earlier. Finicum participated in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Authorities said he was reaching for his gun when he was shot.
St. Paul police Senior Commander Shari Gray, head of the internal affairs unit, said the department is discussing how to handle such videos.
“I know that there’s a trend of releasing video, and … we’re stuck in a limbo phase of what that looks like” for St. Paul, Gray said. “I think there would be times when it’s appropriate to [release video].”
When asked what the department is considering, St. Paul Police Chief Thomas Smith issued a written statement that said, in part, “Recently, we have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about and discussing how to balance the need to release information with the need to ensure that the criminal justice process is unbiased and impartial.”
St. Paul police Senior Commander Tina McNamara, who wants to replace Smith when he retires this year, said she’s open to releasing videos.
“Ideally, would we like to save [videos] for the grand jury? Absolutely,” said McNamara, head of the homicide unit, which investigated officer-involved shootings until last week. “But at what point would it help the community? Calm nerves?”
Two of her colleagues also considering a run for the chief post — Assistant Chief Todd Axtell and Commander Colleen Luna — have expressed similar viewpoints.
They also echoed Harteau’s sentiments: Many issues would have to be weighed first, and if that step is taken after consultation with the county attorney’s office, some videos may only be shown to family members while others would be subject to public viewing.
Fear of violating the law or corrupting the grand jury process is largely unfounded, said Dolan, who released videos to quell rumors that contradicted events captured in the footage.
He showed footage to the media depicting a police pursuit in which a suspect crashed, killing his passenger; surveillance video of a chase leading up to the 2006 fatal shooting of Fong Lee to Lee’s parents, relatives and Hmong community leaders; and he showed relatives and a community activist video of his officers shooting Wayne Reyes.
Dolan took action without consulting the Hennepin County attorney. St. Paul police and Choi’s office work together closely, and although Choi said he’ll “never say never,” he’s strongly resistant to releasing videos early.
Freeman said he’s open to releasing videos early only if they settle an issue without question.
“It will be the rare case,” he said.
It’s unclear how the discussion will play out now that St. Paul is referring investigations to the BCA or Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office; state law gives the investigative agency control of the evidence.
Harteau said she has been working with the BCA since 2013 to establish a “standard operating procedure” to forward the agency her cases, including the Clark shooting.
The agencies need to work toward a compromise, Dolan said.
“Those critical incidents? They’re land mines,” he said. “You can step on one and lose your job. There’s … a lot of politics involved.”