A week after the arrest of a young Minneapolis man for failing to pay for a light-rail train ride, Metro Transit stands behind its decision not to identify the officer involved, citing privacy rights.

The arrest of Draon Armstrong, who was slammed to the ground by a Metro Transit officer, has sparked calls for police reforms by some who found video footage of the July 8 incident troubling. It also raises questions about how far law enforcement agencies can go in shielding officers involved in such incidents as the number of videos recorded by witnesses grows.

Metro Transit police declined a Star Tribune request for the officer’s identity and redacted his name in an incident report. The department said releasing his name would violate Minnesota’s Data Practices Act.

“In this case, because the substance of the complaint has already been made public, releasing the name of the officer would violate the officer’s privacy rights under the Data Practices Act,” Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr said in a statement. He cited two state advisory opinions (No. 04-015 and No. 96-019) to support the decision.

The Data Practices Act, which concerns public records, does require agencies to disclose the existence and status of a complaint or charge against a government employee, except when the substance of the complaint is already known. An aim is to prevent people from using the details of a complaint just to find the identity of the accused.

Essentially, the public cannot know the nature of a complaint and identity of an employee involved at the same time until the matter is resolved, said media attorney Mark Anfinson. He believes the law should be amended to allow disclosure.

“The name is essential to accountability,” said Anfinson, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Newspaper Association. “If you can’t know the accused, you can’t determine or follow what the agency is doing to deal with [a complaint]. It turns the law on its head.”

On July 22, Armstrong, 21, is scheduled to be arraigned in Hennepin County district court on charges of fare evasion and obstructing a legal process, both misdemeanors. The Minneapolis NAACP, which has criticized the handling of the arrest and called for police reforms, is planning to represent him in court, said Jason Sole, chair of the criminal justice reform committee.

Footage of the arrest at the Target Field light-rail station was reportedly taken with a cellphone by Armstrong’s sister and posted to a local TV station’s website.

From Staten Island, N.Y., to Charleston, S.C., the recording of police arrests by citizens has played an important part in the national discussion of law enforcement practices.

Minneapolis police have joined the conversation over whether officers should be required to wear body cameras.

In June, Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau told the Police Conduct Oversight Commission that the department was in the process of selecting a vendor and framing a policy regarding the 616 body cameras expected to be used full time beginning Feb. 1. It is currently seeking public feedback on the subject.

There is an ongoing national debate about whether video from police body cameras should be considered public record.

“What we’ve been hearing is a lot of rhetoric about protecting the privacy of civilians that are involved in these police encounters” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “But my own belief is that a lot of what’s driving the claim these police body cams should be secret is that they don’t want the police officers to be revealed.”

 

Twitter: @MarcusEHoward