Nearly two years after Frank Baker was kicked by a St. Paul police officer and mauled by a K-9 in a case of mistaken identity, the police report about the incident ceased to exist in the department’s public records.
It wasn’t part of more than 3,300 pages of K-9 bite reports, nor did it turn up in an independent search at the department’s public records unit.
That’s because the report had been placed on “lockdown” and never removed from the classification, which renders a police report invisible except to select police leaders and civilian supervisors.
From 2011 to 2018, about 275 St. Paul police cases, or more than 6,500 pages of reports, have been placed on “administrative lockdown,” which is used at the discretion of commanders and higher-ranking officers. A written policy sets out broad guidelines but doesn’t include criteria for what qualifies a case for lockdown, nor detail when and how a report should be unlocked.
A department review of the 275 reports resulted in a majority of them being unlocked; 40 remain on lockdown.
“It’s a horrible practice,” said Don Gemberling, an advocate for governmental transparency. “For no criteria as to how those decisions are made and no clear lines of accountability and no one looking over their shoulders, how does anyone know if this is being done appropriately?”
Police defend the practice by noting that it shields sensitive, active cases from prying eyes but acknowledged that the department has taken several steps recently to address the practice after the Star Tribune requested years of lockdown reports in mid-2018.
“It is a common practice in law enforcement, because often people have access to reports and it’s possible that what information they learned from the reports could jeopardize investigations if information is leaked,” said department spokesman Steve Linders.
Minneapolis police also place reports on lockdown. Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder said their civilian records staff can see that a report is on lockdown and should be able to provide a public version of the report.
Public reports at minimum are supposed to include data police must provide as outlined by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. That includes the date and location of a call, whether force was used, the name of anyone arrested and a brief description of what occurred, among other details.
The same law also says law enforcement “may temporarily withhold response or incident data” if the information could endanger someone’s safety or cause a suspect to flee or destroy evidence.
Minneapolis and St. Paul police said it’s the longer, more in-depth reports that are restricted by the lockdown.
“I would be very, very surprised if in fact we found that there was a flaw in the system,” Elder said.
Data and civil rights activists say they recognize police’s ability to withhold data in some circumstances, but they don’t believe that either department’s lockdown practices are transparent.
“I think it’s completely wrong,” said David McKinney, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. “I think the legal footing for this practice is suspect.”
Until the past few weeks, front-line civilian staff in St. Paul’s police records unit who handle public and media requests could not see lockdown cases and were unable to determine that they existed, much less provide a public report.
“It is a secret file,” said longtime open-government activist Rich Neumeister. “This is a policy that’s rife for mischief and not following the law.”
St. Paul adopted its “administrative lockdown” policy in about 2007 after learning that a wide range of people had access to reports.
In addition to sworn officers, city prosecutors and civilians who work in police records or in the city’s information technology area can access reports.
The policy gives “any person of commander rank or higher” the ability to issue a written request for “investigative data” to be locked down, including reports, pictures, audio and video.
Some St. Paul cases that have been locked down in recent years include an undercover officer and confidential informant’s $6,800 purchase of a half-pound of meth in 2014, the 2015 officer-involved fatal shooting of Philip Quinn, who was struggling with mental health issues at the time, and the 2015 burglary of a storage unit in which “a large quantity of firearms” were stolen.
A 2017 assault report in which a then-supervisor of Ramsey County’s residential program for troubled boys fractured a 16-year-old boy’s wrist was also locked down.
Linders said it’s unclear why the Baker report remained on lockdown long after the case had been publicized, after the city had reached a record $2 million settlement with Baker and after an employment dispute with one of the officers involved, Brett Palkowitsch, had been resolved.
He was federally indicted in January for using unreasonable force on Baker, who could not be reached for comment.
“That was a mistake on our part,” Linders said. “We’re not trying to withhold public information.”
But advocates worry that civilians acting on good faith wouldn’t know whether a report had slipped through the cracks.
“The issue with having these secret files and systems that are based on secrecy is that it’s hard to test them and hold the department accountable,” McKinney said.
St. Paul police maintain that a public report for all lockdown cases should always be available at the records unit.
But a reporter’s recent attempt to retrieve a public report using the case number of a lockdown report hit roadblocks.
“This case is on lockdown, so we can’t release anything on it,” said a records unit staffer.
The reporter asked if a public report was available.
“No, there’s not even a public page,” the staffer said.
The reporter asked why a public page was not available.
“I don’t know,” the staffer said. “I should find out for you … but I can’t get the records on my computer.”
The reporter asked the staffer to check with a supervisor and eventually obtained a one-page report for a case labeled “Investigate — And All Other.” It included the address and time of a Jan. 8, 2018, police call.
A description of the call simply said, “Information Report.”
The recent release of reports is of little comfort to advocates, who question police motives and still have concerns about the practice.
“The changes didn’t come about because St. Paul sat down and said, ‘How are we doing with complying with the data practices act?’ ” Gemberling said. “It came about because [the Star Tribune] started asking questions.”