By Chao Xiong, the Star Tribune's Ramsey County courts reporter
It was supposed to be a routine assignment: Drive up to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Patrol Division in Arden Hills and pick up the public incident report about the homicide of a man found dead in Shoreview. But an encounter with the sheriff’s records clerks Friday became an unexpected struggle for public data.
I asked the first clerk for the public incident report, and she said it was not available because the case was under investigation. A public portion should always be available, I said, even for active cases. A second clerk stepped in and told me they couldn’t release a report until there was an arrest. I made a point that I parroted multiple times that afternoon: A public incident report is required by law, and the sheriff’s office is required to provide it upon request. The clerk was unmoved. Twice she pointed out that there was a news release about the case in which a man was believed to have been gunned down. Each time I told her that a news release is not the same thing as a public incident report.
The experience shocked me. A simple request was being met with such force and defiance. I couldn’t fathom why the clerks were unfamiliar with the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which requires law enforcement to release basic information about the time, location and address of a police call, among other information. It’s basic protocol followed by other agencies across the metro. I wasn’t trying to trick anyone into giving me something they shouldn’t.
Sure, I had a personal stake in the outcome of Friday’s encounter (I had a story to write), but I wondered: What does this say about greater transparency within the department? How often are others incorrectly told they can’t get access to state-mandated public information? I’m a journalist; I’ll just stick around long after it’s obvious I’m being rebuffed by people who openly and intensely dislike me. But how many ordinary citizens would just give up?
After much back-and-forth, I was given a one-sentence report (shown above) that read, “Death Investiation (sic) of black male in Shoreview.” The page said it was “Page 4 of 6,” but pages 1-3 and 5 and 6 were nowhere to be found. I told the clerk that a public incident report should have the date, time and location of the call. She said they didn’t have to provide that until there was an arrest.
“I want to know that in the future I can come in and get a public incident report,” I said.
The clerk insisted that I was wrong; they didn’t have to provide me anything until there was an arrest. I’m not sure where she got that idea, which she repeated a few times Friday.
Frustrated, I left. In follow-up conversations via email, sheriff’s spokesman Randy Gustafson said the sheriff’s office has a “cumbersome” records management system from 1998 that makes generating public incident reports difficult. I informed him that at no time did the clerks cite a cumbersome computer system for their reluctance to produce a report.
I spoke with Sheriff Matt Bostrom, not to pout about Friday’s situation, but to smooth the road for future transactions and to address transparency at this office.
“I acknowledge that you have a right to the public information, and that an arrest is not relevant to the public information release,” Bostrom said. “I think that one of the things – I’m trying to be a good boss here and support my employees here – is that we do have a difficult records management system and it is not friendly…”
Bostrom said that unlike other programs, their system does not automatically separate public and private information in a report. Someone has to read a report and create a new, separate public document that redacts private information.
“It is scary for them to do that, because they don’t want to disrupt a case, particularly in what appears to be a homicide,” Bostrom said.
I don’t think that excuses the sheriff’s office from undertaking the effort when a request is made. It doesn’t seem right to hold the public accountable for staff reluctance and deficient products. (Isn’t the public paying those people to do that work?) I also reminded Bostrom that the issue in Arden Hills was not the system, but that the clerks did not feel compelled to follow state law.
It was good to hear Bostrom say that his office is reviewing vendors for a new records management system that he hopes will run smoother, and that will possibly allow the public to view reports online for free. The process of rolling out a new system would likely take more than a year, he said. The sheriff also said he’d look at any “gaps” in training that could have contributed to Friday’s debacle.
“We will do better,” he said.