After Chiasher Vue, 52, was killed in an apparent exchange of gunfire with police outside his north Minneapolis home this month, the questions began piling up.
Which officers were involved? Were their body cameras rolling and, if so, what did they capture of the shooting? Was Vue armed, and had he fired on police before they shot him?
When the answers didn’t come right away, a local police watchdog group sued the city in district court, challenging its refusal to immediately release certain details about the incident.
The legal action, which comes as officials work to clear a huge backlog of data requests, looms as yet another test for Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, who promised a culture of accountability and openness when he took over the department in 2017, civil rights and privacy advocates say. St. Paul is also facing a lawsuit, brought by the ACLU earlier this month, over allegations that its police force has “unlawfully refused” to provide public information regarding traffic stops, citations, arrests and use of force.
While Minneapolis and other policing agencies have become more transparent in some ways, the process of asking for even basic information has turned into a labyrinthine endeavor that can overwhelm all but the most steadfast record seekers, said Rich Neumeister, an outspoken advocate of open meetings and records.
“As an institution, law enforcement in this state does not have a healthy attitude about transparency and accountability to the public,” Neumeister said. “Is it better than it was 50 or 60 years [ago]? Sure, because now we have a law — but what’s happened now is that institutions are that much more sophisticated and they’ll look at every little way to not give you the data.”
Minneapolis officials admit that they’ve had a difficult time keeping up with the deluge of data requests from journalists, activists and members of the public, some of whom are being told that any requests beyond a simple accident or incident report could take more than a month to fulfill.
The city “must make difficult decisions pertaining to its data practices responsibilities and the deployment of very limited government resources, as it receives requests for more data than it currently has staff to provide within the time frames contemplated in the data practices statutes in Minnesota,” the city attorney’s office wrote in a court filing last week.
The filing was in response to an earlier lawsuit from Communities United Against Police Brutality that accused city officials of failing to turn over police disciplinary records that it had been seeking for more than two years. The city has denied most of the other allegations made in the suit, while acknowledging that “slow turnaround times can be perceived by the Community as a lack of transparency and service by MPD.”
Neither the Police Department nor City Clerk Casey Carl responded to requests for comment Thursday, and Acting City Attorney Erik Nilsson declined to answer specific questions, instead issuing a statement that said the city “takes its responsibilities under the Data Practices Act seriously and is working diligently to assess the status of these requests.”
‘Reasonable time’ standard
As with other recent police shootings, city officials say they are restricted in what they can release about Vue’s death, and when — particularly since all evidence is in the custody of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the state agency that took over investigating most officer-involved deaths amid concerns about conflicts of interest. Officials have said that information about the most recent shooting will be posted on the city’s website, but did not specify a time frame or protocol for its release.
Withholding that information for now doesn’t necessarily mean that the city is running afoul of the state’s Data Practices Act, said Matt Ehling, executive director of Public Record Media, a government transparency group. He said state law affords government agencies “reasonable time” to respond to data requests — a more lenient standard than its federal counterpart, “which has a 20-day response time.” The “reasonable time” standard, he added, is “based on the volume of information that has been requested,” which in Minneapolis’ case is tops in the state.
“They do tend to be slower, but the flip side of that is that they’re probably the largest recipients of data requests in the state,” Ehling said.
Most of the burden falls on the department’s chronically understaffed Records Information Unit. With its staff of 13, plus two supervisors working out of a ground-floor office at City Hall, the unit is responsible for everything from expungements to accident reports to processing and redacting the thousands and thousands of hours of body camera footage recorded by officers each month. At the same time, the unit has several vacancies, making it tougher to keep up with the more than 400 requests that flow into its office every day via e-mail, telephone and, until recently, fax.
Officials last year blamed a growing backlog of unfilled requests on staffing shortages within the Records Unit and the growing pains of transitioning to the Police Department’s then-new records management system, PIMS, which promised to streamline access to data in criminal cases.
But, nearly two years after its launch, the backlog persists.
The growing number of unanswered requests is part of a larger problem of data flow at City Hall, Council Member Linea Palmisano said.
“We’re not unlike other cities in that we’re running behind,” she said, adding that she was open to revisiting the idea of merging the Records Unit with the City Clerk’s office. “I think MPD struggles with scarce resources to be any sort of timely to these kinds of requests — that’s both a dissatisfier to the public and it also greatly hurts trust between the public and the police department.”
She added: “It doesn’t matter what department: police or CPED [Community Planning and Economic Development], there has to be a different level of accountability than there has been in the past.”