The scene on Hwy. 212 in Eden Prairie last February played out in front of a video camera pointed through a squad car windshield. A car pursued by police swerves wildly and crashes to a stop. A man emerges, then a woman. Face to face, they shuffle together in circles as the man holds a knife and an officer screams for them to get on the ground.
Abruptly, the video ends.
It’s well known what happened next. Officers shot and killed both people, Matthew Serbus and Dawn Pfister, saying they each posed a threat with the same knife.
After a grand jury exonerated police, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s investigative file became public, including the dash cam video.
Except for the moment that the fatal shots were fired. The BCA decided that footage was “clearly offensive to common sensibilities.” That’s a judgment the agency is allowed to make, thanks to a provision of the state’s public records law passed in 1981.
It’s hard to imagine a video that’s more important for the public to see.
Last week, Pfister’s family members filed a lawsuit against Chaska police Sgt. Brady Juell and the city of Chaska, alleging the woman posed no threat but was shot four times while she was on the ground. In addition to at least $5 million in damages, the lawsuit seeks the release of the “complete unredacted squad videos,” which it calls the “best evidence” in the case.
Lawyers for the officer and the city, meanwhile, say the grand jury got it right. Officers told investigators that Pfister had picked up the knife and made threatening movements before she was shot.
The full video may emerge in court. Or it may not.
In the meantime, the only recourse for anyone who wants to see the whole video would be to file their own lawsuit against the state.
When the law was being drafted, law enforcement lobbyists brought in gruesome photos of decomposition and dismemberment to demonstrate why they needed discretion to withhold certain images, said Don Gemberling, a former state employee who wrote much of the state’s open records statute, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. (I should say here, Gemberling and I both serve on the board of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information.)
The wording gives wide latitude to law enforcement to decide what’s too ugly or lurid for public view. It has engendered little controversy over the past three decades. Since 1994, the commissioner of administration has issued only three rulings on disputes over images withheld by police for this reason.
Yet “common sensibilities” have changed, big time.
The public tolerance for gruesome material, both factual and fictional, has grown. Online videos show all manner of real-world horrors, from decapitations to immolations to wartime slaughter.
More to the point, video and still images documenting crime and police work have proliferated, much of it created to ensure transparency and accountability.
The volume of that material is poised to explode, thanks to the spread of police body cameras. Law enforcement interests are seeking legislation that would seal almost all body-camera video from public view. This is supposedly to protect the public’s privacy. It’s laughable to think that body-cam video will hold police accountable for their conduct if they’re the only ones allowed to see it.
In the case of the Hwy. 212 shooting video, the BCA made a judgment based on propriety, not privacy, that just happens to make it impossible for us to know what really happened.
The lawyer representing Pfister’s family, Robert Bennett, has seen some of the redacted footage, and acknowledges that it’s extremely graphic. “While it may be tough on common sensibilities, you need to see it like you need to see Auschwitz,” Bennett said.
In recent months, police-involved shootings have sparked outrage and damaged community relations from Ferguson, Mo., to Albuquerque to St. Paul. Releasing all of the Hwy. 212 videos would put common sense ahead of common sensibilities.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.