Show us the files.
That’s what the Star Tribune said to the FBI immediately after U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger announced that no federal charges would be filed in the police shooting of Jamar Clark.
Clark’s death in November 2015 led to weeks of protests and added Minneapolis to the national debate over the deaths of black men at the hands of police. When Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced in March that the two officers wouldn’t be charged with any state crimes, he complied with state law and handed over videos, interview transcripts, photos, autopsy results and other materials from the now-closed investigative file.
The FBI could have followed suit, once Luger declared in June that no civil rights charges were warranted in Clark’s death. Now, members of the public should have a chance to see for themselves whether their investigation was truly “a thorough analysis of the evidence gathered.”
Yet the FBI sent us a letter June 23 that answered our request this way: Nope.
The agency said it couldn’t give us the file because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) shields records that “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
Thinking there might be some mistake, we asked again.
The FBI letter dated Aug. 31 was an identical rejection.
So was there some “law enforcement proceeding” still going on that we didn’t know about? Kyle Loven, the FBI spokesman in Minnesota, confirmed that the investigation was closed. So did Ben Petok, a spokesman for Luger.
I looked more closely at the letters. Both were signed by David Hardy, chief of the FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section. There was no e-mail for him. Or phone number.
I’m sure that wasn’t an accident on his part. The FBI received nearly 13,000 FOIA requests last year. Only 498 resulted in a full grant of information requested, and Hardy probably didn’t want to hear from everybody else.
Nevertheless, the FBI did include some other places to turn. None of them sounded especially speedy. We could file an appeal (average turnaround time last year: two months). We could contact the National Archives, which mediates FOIA disputes. We could send an e-mail to the FBI’s FOIA public liaison.
I decided to call that person. The FBI listed a name (Michael Seidel) and a phone number, and I left a message. When I called a day later, he picked up the phone.
I explained our quandary. He expressed puzzlement. “Something doesn’t seem right,” Seidel said. “If we publicly announced there wouldn’t be a prosecution, that deserves more looking into.”
He said he would track it down. Meanwhile, he encouraged me to e-mail the FBI with a subject line: “Dispute resolution services.”
That e-mail earned a prompt response from Holly Early, from the FBI’s records office. My request had been “forwarded for review. A response will be forthcoming.”
Many times in this space I have written about records that government has kept secret at times when the public is hungry for knowledge. Most of those records eventually have been released, but attention has moved onto something else.
These are supposed to be better times for access to federal records, now that FOIA reforms have been signed into law by President Obama. The FBI plays a crucial role in holding local law enforcement accountable, so it should be prepared to show its work.
Three months after the Jamar Clark case was closed, it’s long past time to open the files.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at email@example.com or 612-673-4116.