Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher's failure to see a stricken pedestrian on a busy suburban roadway in November while livestreaming and driving has alarmed safety advocates and the man's family, who are considering legal action.
The pedestrian, 46-year-old Michael Leonard, was critically injured and may lose the use of his legs, said his attorney, Max Hacker. The family is awaiting the results of the Roseville police and Minnesota State Patrol investigations before deciding their next step, Hacker said.
"It's disturbing that the sheriff was streaming a live TV show while he was driving through a busy pedestrian area," he said.
Fletcher was narrating his "Live on Patrol" show for Facebook and YouTube on Nov. 11 when he drove past Leonard on Rice Street near N. McCarrons Boulevard in Roseville. Fletcher has said he did not see Leonard, who was lying on the side of the road, because it was nighttime and the road was wet. The sheriff did not respond to additional questions about the incident for this story.
Despite its popularity with thousands of viewers, questions have dogged "Live on Patrol" since its inception this summer, with critics raising concerns about privacy, the use of real-life emergencies as entertainment, and the sheriff — who is up for re-election in 2022 — using the show as a vehicle for political campaigning.
"Ninety-five percent of officers walk the talk and support our messages," said Lisa Kons,traffic safety program manager at the Minnesota Safety Council. The organization fought to get the state's hands-free law passed, and Kons said she was disappointed to see Fletcher's practice of livestreaming while driving. "It's tough when you see stuff like this."
These new questions about Fletcher's use of live video streaming come just as Ramsey County officials host a series of public "listening sessions" about the sheriff's performance. The sessions were triggered by concerns over his use of public money, hiring decisions, a report of discriminatory treatment of jail staff, revelations that Fletcher and most of his leadership team take pensions on top of their salaries, and other issues. In the first of four listening sessions held on Dec. 8, people who enjoy watching "Live on Patrol" said they were in support of Fletcher's job performance, while others said he is not being accountable to the communities he covers.
Fletcher's strained relationship with county leaders will be tested again this week when the County Board takes up the 2021 budget. Fletcher, who earlier this year needed a nearly $1 million bailout to cover cost overruns, is headed for more financial negotiations with the board.
Fletcher's office sent a letter to Ramsey County Manager Ryan O'Connor on Nov. 30 asking for $1.3 million more funding for the 2021 budget to cover salaries, retirement contributions and anticipated expenses for civil unrest during the upcoming George Floyd trial. A computer software glitch screwed up earlier budget numbers and caused some of the shortfall, according to Fletcher's office.
In a letter Monday, Ramsey County Chief Financial Officer Alex Kotze said a software error did cause a $165,000 retirement contribution rate calculation error, but said it was budgeting errors in the sheriff's office that created a much larger shortfall of about $657,789 in personnel costs. The county also turned down the sheriff's $500,000 request for covering anticipated civil unrest. The county has reserve funds available if needed, Kotze wrote.
Because Fletcher is elected, his relationship with voters is more important to his career longevity than his relationship with the County Board.
"Live on Patrol" has attracted a loyal fan base in Minnesota and beyond, particularly among so-called "scanner junkies" who enjoy following emergency dispatches intended for police, firefighters and rescue workers.
Rick Abbott, founder of the popular @MN_CRIME Twitter account that chronicles public safety incidents via police scanner, regularly promotes "Live on Patrol" to his nearly 18,000 followers. The weekly shows offer transparency of law enforcement, he said, and help foster trust with the community they serve.
"I think he's doing a good job," Abbott said. "The day-in, day-out stuff he shows is a good window into what it's actually like to be a cop." As a St. Paul transplant, Abbott also enjoys the historical context Fletcher and his partner for the show, Patrick Scott, provide about certain neighborhoods and crime trends, as well as the levity their banter grants viewers.
Fletcher patrols the county, usually chatting with Scott, a part-time crime analyst for the sheriff's office and a former St. Paul police officer.
In an episode in November, Fletcher followed pursued a stolen car for about 17 minutes through residential neighborhoods, even as the St. Paul Police Department called off the chase. Like most urban departments, the St. Paul Police Department has reconsidered pursuits after a rash of crashes and injuries and today mostly restricts them to cases of violent felonies.
Minnesota's hands-free law prohibits video streaming, including using FaceTime or any other video streaming service. But the law also includes an exception for law enforcement, such as a situation where an emergency vehicle is "in the performance of official duties," according to a spokesman for the state attorney general's office.
Kons said Fletcher's episode with the fallen pedestrian undermines her organization's message about distracted driving and its efforts to reduce traffic crashes and fatalities. "You have one job when you are behind the wheel, and that is to drive," she said.
As of Sunday, the state has seen 379 highway deaths statewide, at least 30 of which were related to distracted driving, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Minutes after driving past Leonard, who was lying on Rice Street near Roselawn Avenue, Fletcher sat on the side of the road and fiddled with his phone. His YouTube connection was possibly down, he said. As he sat in silence working on the phone, a dispatcher came over the radio to call for help for the pedestrian.
"Be advised …" the dispatcher began, before giving the location of the downed pedestrian. Fletcher, who was about 3 miles away from the crash at this point, either did not hear her, or think that his assistance was necessary, because after the radio went silent, he addressed his audience about his own technical emergency. YouTube is back up, he said, and he did not need to restart his phone.
Pam Fischer, senior director of external engagement for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said drivers who are livestreaming — illegally or not — must be mindful of what they are doing, and there is nothing more important than being focused on the road.
"You have to be able to see what is going on the roads so you can take necessary precautions," she said. "Our first priority is to be focused on the roads, so we don't miss critical things."
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329