Nothing's better on a cloudy Tuesday than going to a library meeting room, munching on sandwiches and talking about what it takes to get public records from the cops. In an event organized by the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), of which yours truly is a board member, about 30 people gathered at the Rondo Community Library in St. Paul to hear journalists and other open government advocates talk about struggles and successes in getting law enforcement to hand over records of incidents, arrests and investigations.
Law enforcement data has typically been the most contentious public records issue in Minnesota, according to data practices guru Don Gemberling. He said it took two or three years to work out a deal between police and media before the law enforcement provision of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act could become law back in 1979.
More than 30 years later, this is one law that our law enforcers often seem to ignore. Star Tribune reporter Chao Xiong described how a simple effort to get an incident report from the Ramsey County Sheriff turned into a confrontation with a records clerk that ended when a deputy ordered her to stop talking to him. Pioneer Press/Digital First Media data reporter MaryJo Webster described how it took a state agency's advisory opinion to persuade the St. Paul Police Department to turn over complete electronic records on crimes, and then the department took a year to redact certain info before it turned over the data to the newspaper for its crime-mapping tool.
Webster also related the Minneapolis Police Department's decision to stop putting its crime data online after MinnPost last year began building maps from it. After MinnPost reported the matter, the department quickly reversed itself. Now the Minneapolis police provide crime data to a private company that creates its own maps, but it remains to be seen whether it will offer that data stream to anyone who requests it.
Rich Neumeister, who prowls the halls of the Capitol in the name of government transparency and individual privacy, urged those in attendance to make their voices heard as laws are considered to control police use of license plate readers and cell phone tracking devices.
Here are some take-home messages for those wanting records from police:
- The public has the right to data on police response (911), incidents and arrests. The law specifies what that data must contain
- Investigative data becomes public once the investigation is closed
- You don't have to say who you are or why you want the data
- Go up the chain if records clerk does not know the law
Photo above: Citizen lobbyist Rich Neumeister makes a point as MNCOGI board members Nancy Herther and Helen Burke look on.