The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office (HCAO) is circumventing legal requirements to seize personal property. As reported by the Minnesota Sun, HCAO’s policy states that the personal cellphone of any law enforcement officer involved in a critical incident is potentially subject to search and seizure, including phones not in the officer’s possession during the incident. Appallingly, the HCAO Media Coordinator is quoted as saying, “There are no privacy rights in a criminal investigation,” a position that turns the Constitution on its head.
Unfortunately, this is only the latest example of elected officials depriving officers of their rights.
A double standard applies to officers when it comes to rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment as well. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) routinely declines criminal charges where the suspect refuses to provide self-incriminating statements on the grounds that, absent an incriminating statement, the prosecutor cannot ensure a conviction. Yet, when an officer invokes his or her right to remain silent, the implication is drawn that the officer is hiding the truth. County attorneys then engage in a fishing expedition to find an alternative means to gather what they hope will be incriminating information.
The pattern of vilifying law enforcement is troubling. In the highly publicized shooting death of Justine Damond, HCAO did not use a grand jury for its intended purpose, which is to review cases for criminal charges. Instead, a grand jury was used solely to compel officers to answer questions after a prosecutor accused investigators of not doing their job and the officer’s partner of not providing enough information to bring charges.
Worse yet, the elected county attorney was recorded, while the investigation was still pending, implying that criminal charges against the officer would be a “big present ... under the Christmas tree.”
RCAO has also set an alarming precedent for how it handles violent crime against law enforcement. When officers are victims of crime, RCAO deviates from its stated core values — to protect the rights of victims — and circumvents laws meant to prevent victims from being excluded from the prosecutorial process.
Officers do not receive the same empathy any other victim would. For example, RCAO recently allowed two individuals who threatened law enforcement with loaded firearms to retain their ability to possess firearms. These actions fail to recognize officers as victims of crime and, more broadly, enables the gun violence that threatens our communities and officers on a daily basis.
When officers are charged for lawfully defending their communities and themselves against that very threat, it reinforces a double standard and further hurts recruiting efforts.
Elected officials unfairly vilify law enforcement and assign blame to officers in highly tense, rapidly evolving scenarios where split-second decisions must be made. This judgment is not cast upon other members of the criminal justice system.
For example, the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) presented evidence some years ago that the RCAO wrongfully convicted Koua Fong Lee of vehicular homicide, which resulted in Lee spending three years in prison. The prosecutor was not charged with a crime and did not go to prison after Lee unjustly lost his freedom; the justice system as a whole was held to blame. Prosecutors performed their duties as required by law; their actions were not seen as malicious.
After all, would anyone still want to become a prosecutor knowing they could go to prison if a person were wrongfully convicted?
Elected officials enacting policies based on rush-to-judgment conclusions and short-sighted desires to remain in office will continue to lead to detrimental and long-lasting consequences, including increased difficulty in police recruiting. As a result of politicians’ acquiescent behavior, very few people now want to serve as police officers.
Nationally, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people becoming police officers. Minnesota is no different. As reported in the Star Tribune, 2018 was on track to see the smallest number of people take the state licensing exam in at least a decade. Applicants to the Minneapolis Police Department decreased from 1,000 applicants to 200. Within a four-year period, applicants to the St. Paul Police Department decreased from 794 to 178. In 2013, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office had 354 applicants; last year, just 140.
Elected officials do not afford law enforcement officers the same basic rights enjoyed by other private citizens. Elected prosecutors apply different charging standards and investigative expectations to cases involving officers. Yet, when officers are victims of crime, their rights are not protected and elected officials tacitly condone the violent crimes committed against them.
We must ask ourselves, “Is this what happens when it becomes socially acceptable to prosecute police officers when they perform their duties as required by law?”
Allison Schaber is president of the Ramsey County Deputy Sheriff’s Union.