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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.
A California-based real estate brokerage company engaged in unlicensed mortgage modifications in Minnesota and charged upfront fees for services that were never rendered, according to a Minnesota Department of Commerce enforcement action issued last month.
Commercial Loan Solutions LLC and its owners Charles T. Heppner and Benjamin Ackerman of Los Angeles were fined $25,000 for promising to modify mortgages in Minnesota and charging upfront fees in 2010 and 2011. The loans weren't modified, and the homeowners were denied a refund, according to the documents.
Commercial Loan Solutions is the latest company to be fined for failing to deliver on loan modifications and charging upfront fees, which is illegal in the state.
In May the Star Tribune reported the Department of Commerce had taken enforcement action against 36 individuals for violating mortgage modification laws.
Heppner and Ackerman were not licensed real estate brokers or loan originators, the documents said. A loan originator license is required to modify loans in Minnesota.
Last year, 38 Minnesotans successfully appealed their denial or revocation of a permit to carry a handgun. This is despite some of them being denied permits for reasons such as having active orders for protection filed against them, histories of drug crimes or assaults, or numerous arrests.
That's according to the 2012 permit to carry report released today by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Thanks to the BCA providing the Star Tribune some of the information early, we've already reported on permits issued last year (a record 31,657), and the number of crimes by permit holders and justifiable uses reported, (though we now know those numbers are too low). And we did a story on permit applicants who were initially denied, only to get those permits on appeal up to 2011.
What we didn't have was the 2012 appeal information until today, which shows that last year of the 252 applicants initially denied, 61 of those appealed. Of those, about 62 percent were successful. Some of those permit holders were initially denied for reasons like:
While the permit-to-carry statute requires sheriffs departments to report denial reasons, it doesn't require providing information on why an appeal was successful. The reports also don't provide the name of any permit applicant, which is protected by state law. Since 2003, 337 applicants have successfully appealed their denial, seeing about a 50 percent success rate.
Click here for a sortable database of all of the permit to carry denials and appeals since 2003, collected from the BCA reports.
Numerous Star Tribune stories on gun permits have cited numbers on permit holders who have been convicted of crimes.
On Monday, for example, we reported that since 2003, permit holder have been convicted of 124 crimes using a pistol, including 19 for assaults, 10 for carrying under the influence, six for drug-related crimes and one for a homicide.
Those numbers are likely far too low.
The Minneapolis Police Department hasn't been providing those numbers to the agency responsible for reporting the data, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, even though the department is required to do so by law. (see Subd. 20).
In the Sunday story, Minneapolis Police acknowledged not reporting the number of justifiable uses of firearms by permit holders, including three cases from 2010 to 2011.
After I asked whether the department was reporting crimes by permit holders, Sgt. Bill Palmer of the MPD said Tuesday morning via email the department had not.
I've asked the BCA for a response on the lack of reporting crime numbers, but when I asked the agency late Friday about the lack of reporting on justifiable uses, spokeswoman Jill Oliveira responded by email, "That data is required to be submitted to the BCA under Minnesota law."
The BCA provided me last week with the 2012 numbers on all crimes committed by permit holders in advance of Friday, when the final report is due to the legislature. Combined with reports from previous years, they show that permit holders were convicted of 1,458 crimes. But again, that doesn't include Minneapolis.
I asked Palmer if the MPD would be able to update its data for the 2012 report.
"As I said on Friday we will work with the BCA and internally to ensure compliance moving forward," he replied. "I don't see that happening by Friday."
Last fall, after a deranged employee went on a rampage and killed six people at Accent Signage in Minneapolis, the police said they were prohibited by law from saying whether the now-dead gunman, Andrew Engeldinger, a had permit to carry a loaded weapon in public.
Under the state Data Practices Act, which governs what is and what is not public data in Minnesota, "All data pertaining to the purchase or transfer of firearms and applications for permits to carry firearms ... are private."
"That's very comprehensive and cold in terms of public access to data," said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association who specializes in public record laws.
That provision would likely extend to all people who have been issued permits and gone on to commit crimes. A 2011 BCA report says since 2003 there were 1,159 crimes reported by permit holders, including 114 where a gun was used to further the crime (see page 254 of the pdf). But again, the names of those people are likely protected by the data practices act.
Anfinson said the genesis of the law, which has been in place since at least 1981, was likely to protect permit holders from people who could look up their information and steal their firearms. But because the wording "all data" is so broad, Anfinson said it applies even to criminals who have had their permits revoked, or even to the deceased.
There are some ways data on permit holders who have committed crimes can be made public: if it's revealed either in a court record, for example, or in a law enforcement investigation that's been made inactive.
And then there's a provision in the Data Practices Act (Subd. 15) that allows any law enforcement agency to release any criminal investigative data classified as confidential if the agency deems that it would be in the "public interest" to do so. Which may explain why the Oakdale police chief at least hinted that Nhan Tran, who is accused of randomly shooting and killing 9-year-old Devin Aryal Monday night, had a permit to carry a gun (though he wouldn't outright say it).
"We are comfortable that Tran was not in possession unlawfully," Chief Bill Sullivan said.
Do you think it's in the public's interest to know if criminals have been issued a permit to purchase or carry?
Update, 4:15 p.m.:To clarify, law enforcement can't report all of the gun permit information on criminals, even if they feel that doing so would be in the public's interest.
The part of the law that allows law enforcement to disclose non-public information only applies to criminal investigative data, notes Toni Beitz, a senior assistant attorney with Hennepin County. So in other words, if police find out through a criminal investigation that a suspected criminal is a permit holder and they want to release that information, they can, Beitz said.
However, if they find out that information after a conviction, then they cannot give that information to the public, no matter how much they feel it would be in the public's interest.
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