Questions surrounding the recent fatal shootings by police officers have renewed calls for better use of body cameras to make law enforcement more transparent and accountable. But inadequate use of bodycams is a symptom of a larger problem: resistance of some police agencies to public disclosure.
Law enforcement and other government entities that are slow to release public records often claim they need extra time to locate the information. To counter that excuse, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requires public officials to keep records “in such an arrangement and condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use.”
Instead, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office recently took a step in the opposite direction: concocting a deceptive digital record to impede public access.
Tony Webster, a public-records advocate, stumbled onto that effort when he asked the sheriff’s office for e-mails concerning certain law enforcement activities. He got more than he bargained for.
“I have cleverly scrambled the letters in the client program acronym to avoid reading this e-mail on the internet,” read a December e-mail from David Freeman, IT development supervisor for the sheriff’s office, to another sheriff’s department official.
The e-mail referred to a mobile fingerprint initiative that should be part of the public record. Officially named Integrated Biometric Identification System, it was commonly called IBIS. But Freeman changed that acronym in the e-mail to SIIB. Thus, the document would have been hidden from anyone requesting information on the correct acronym in a keyword search. “They’re mocking the Data Practices Act,” Webster said.
The Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to government openness, asked Freeman why he tried to obscure the e-mail and if it was part of a broader practice in the sheriff’s office. He did not respond.
Mark Thompson, assistant county administrator for public safety, said the county is aware of the “easily accessible” requirement. “Hennepin County does not have any policies or practices to scramble letters in e-mails, so that the e-mails are more difficult to locate. Relevant staff have been informed that it is not proper to do so.”
After Webster asked about the meaning of the Freeman e-mail, an administrator in the sheriff’s office clarified that it referred to IBIS.
MNCOGI wanted to know if Sheriff Richard Stanek was aware of the scrambled e-mail before or after it was written, and whether he understood it to be a violation of the law. Stanek didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment. His spokesman, Jon Collins, said, “I will look into this and get back to you.” He didn’t respond further.
Meanwhile the sheriff’s office has begun a policy of deleting e-mails on a much tighter time frame. Hennepin County has followed suit. This will make county government less transparent and therefore less accountable. More disturbing, Hennepin County, along with associations of counties and cities, lobbied during the last legislative session against requiring government officials to retain their e-mails for three years — the period recommended by state experts on data archiving. A proposal to retain e-mails for three years died.
Recent events have galvanized Minnesotans to demand that law enforcement and other government agencies provide more transparency and accountability, not less. Minnesota lawmakers would be wise to listen.
Pat Doyle and Gary Hill are board members of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, which provides public education on government transparency and information policies.
Editor’s note: After this commentary was published, a spokesman said Sheriff Stanek was unaware of the “scrambled letters” email prior to its publication. The spokesman also said the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office had adopted an email policy that requires email be used in accordance with generally accepted business practices and current laws, and all business records are retained according to agency retention schedules.