The cameras were rolling when officers from the Columbia Heights and Fridley police shot and killed a man named Michael Kirvelay last November.
Every Columbia Heights officer is equipped with a body camera, and immediately after Kirvelay’s death, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension announced that investigators would scrutinize that bodycam video as it decides whether the shooting was justified.
Four months later, the public hasn’t been allowed to see that video.
Is this what accountability looks like?
Kirvelay’s death happened nine days after the much more publicized killing of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police. “Release the tapes” became a slogan and hashtag in the protests that have followed, but neither that pressure, nor a lawsuit from the ACLU and the NAACP, has persuaded the Minneapolis police and the BCA to make public the surveillance and bystander videos.
In the early hours of Nov. 24, officers in Columbia Heights responded to a 911 call about a man with a gun in a cleaning service business. Family members said they had called police for help with Kirvelay, who was acting bizarrely, but two officers opened fire after Kirvelay reportedly refused to show his hands.
The whole idea with body cameras is to bolster public trust in police. As more and more officers suit up with a video camera, the implication is clear: If you don’t believe what we say, the truth is on the tape.
In December, the Star Tribune requested the body camera video of the encounter with Kirvelay from the city of Columbia Heights. City Attorney James Hoeft said no. Last week, the Star Tribune made a formal request to the state to declare the video a public record.
Our attorney in the case, Leita Walker, argued in her filing that the Columbia Heights Police Department is flouting the law by withholding the video, because the Minnesota Legislature decided years ago that certain police data about incidents and arrest always remain public.
That even applies to videos that show those incidents and arrests, according to a 2012 advisory opinion from the Minnesota Commissioner of Administration.
Columbia Heights and the BCA believe they don’t have to release the video while the investigation is active.
On Friday, the state informed the Star Tribune that it would not take up our request, because the Legislature is in the midst of writing new laws for when body camera video is public, and when it’s not.
That’s something lawmakers wrestled with last year, and there’s no guarantee they will resolve it this time around.
Meanwhile, the video remains secret, while a secret grand jury in Anoka County meets to consider whether Kirvelay’s death was a crime or a justified homicide.
Now a police department that was one of the first in the nation to require body cameras faces perhaps its biggest test. On March 17, Burnsville police officers shot and killed Map Kong, who was armed with a knife in a McDonald’s parking lot.
Burnsville Police Chief Eric Gieseke has been outspoken in his belief that body cameras will improve police accountability and transparency.
Still, neither the BCA, which is investigating the shooting, nor Gieseke has released the body camera video from the five officers on the scene.
Gieseke said he has every intention of upholding the department’s reputation for transparency.
“We will not get lost in a sea of bureaucratic red tape that extends the process out for an unreasonable amount of time,” Gieseke wrote in an e-mail to me on March 18. “This video will be public, and we will do everything we can to release it as soon as possible.”
The public is waiting.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.