A government transparency group engaged in a two-year legal battle with Minneapolis over access to police misconduct records is accusing city officials of attempting to intimidate their board members — many of whom are journalists — by demanding private data such as Social Security numbers through the discovery process.

The civil lawsuit, filed in June 2021 by the nonprofit Minnesota Coalition on Government Information (MNCOGI), hinges on whether the practice of "coaching" police officers following allegations of misconduct qualifies as formal discipline. Complaints against law enforcement in Minnesota are only public when discipline is imposed.

Minneapolis has for years contended that coaching — a form of one-on-one mentoring to address policy infractions — doesn't meet the standard of true discipline, allowing the city to shield hundreds of records from public disclosure.

MNCOGI believes this practice was designed to circumvent state data laws and has promoted a culture of secrecy within the Minneapolis Police Department, preventing proper oversight.

Last week, the city served a nine-page discovery request demanding, among other things, that MNCOGI divulge the "full name, social security number, date of birth, home address, business address, phone number(s), education, occupation, and marital status" of every board member, employee and volunteer associated with their group.

Leita Walker, the organization's Minneapolis-based attorney, questioned the city's motives for requesting such personal data, noting that she has never had someone ask for a client's Social Security number.

"On their face, it appears that many of these requests for information have absolutely zero relevance to the issues before the court and it seems the city is trying to intimidate, embarrass or harass a small nonprofit and its members," she said.

When asked what a person's marital status, home address or Social Security number has to do with the case, Walker replied: "Nothing."

Walker has also represented several local media organizations, including the Star Tribune, in cases related to public records and the First Amendment. Star Tribune Data Editor MaryJo Webster currently sits on the MNCOGI board, alongside retired Star Tribune reporter Pat Doyle.

In a statement, the Minneapolis City Attorney's Office defended its decision to seek demographic information through the discovery process, claiming the city "utilized language that it has used before in other cases unrelated to public records litigation."

"If the Plaintiff has an issue with discovery served by the City, we would expect to hear from them directly and resolve any disputes ... through the normal litigation process," the statement reads in part.

The City Attorney's Office did not respond to questions inquiring about how a person's marital status, home address or Social Security number pertains to the underlying lawsuit.

(Following the publication of this article online, the City Attorney's Office told the Star Tribune that they planned to serve an amended discovery on MNCOGI that would "remove some of the information originally requested" in the document.)

Jane Kirtley, a lawyer and director of the Silha Center for Media Ethics and the Law at the University of Minnesota, blasted city officials for what she deemed a "totally ridiculous" and inappropriate pursuit of broad personal information.

"Marital status? What does this have to do with what is really a simple Minnesota Data Practices Act request? The answer is nothing," said Kirtley, adding that attorneys sometimes employ such tactics to intimidate the plaintiffs or delay the whole process.

"This is irrelevant data. They have no reason to be collecting it and, therefore, I have to assume that their motives are really questionable in doing so," said Kirtley, a former MNCOGI board member who stepped down in March 2022.

The discovery request comes just days after the City Attorney's Office launched an investigation into the source of the KSTP-TV story uncovering the existence of three open complaints against Police Chief Brian O'Hara. The day before the news story aired, City Attorney Kristyn Anderson sent KSTP an email warning that the complaints they obtained were considered private data and that "willful violation of the Data Practices Act is a criminal misdemeanor under Minnesota law."

First Amendment advocates have expressed grave concern about what they viewed as an overt threat of legal action against a journalist — and the precedent that office is setting.

"I don't know what's going on at City Hall, but I hope they figure it out. This is Minneapolis — not Marion, Kansas," Walker said, referencing the recent police raid of a local newspaper office that was widely condemned as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's protection of a free press.

Coaching has long been a topic of interest for ardent police reformers seeking greater accountability of MPD. In January 2015, a U.S. Department of Justice report cited the practice as a systemic challenge to early intervention of bad officer behavior as well as "inconsistencies and confusion in the coaching process."

City officials have described coaching as a tool to swiftly correct minor infractions involving conduct that does not rise to the level of discipline. Yet, the Department of Justice report found that MPD often cases for coaching involving allegations that are far from 'low-level.'"

In one 2019 case, an officer smacked, kicked and deployed a Taser on a teenager accused of shoplifting, then conducted an interrogation without reading him his Miranda rights. The "egregious misconduct" was referred for coaching, according to the DOJ report, but federal investigators found no evidence that any coaching ever occurred.

The findings appear to validate arguments by MNCOGI, which has long contended that the city relies on coaching as a corrective action in some cases of excessive force, discrimination and harassment. And internal coaching forms obtained by the government transparency group even use the word "discipline" on them.

Earlier this month, Assistant City Attorney Mark Enslin wrote a letter to Hennepin County Judge Karen A. Janisch explaining that the police department doesn't interpret it that way.

"The fact that a few documents may use the word 'discipline' in the context of coaching," he said, "does not transform a process that the relevant parties uniformly treat as non-discipline into something else."

Star Tribune staff writer Andy Mannix contributed to this report.