The actions of undercover officers investigating prostitution in Minneapolis were, in a judge’s words, “outrageous government conduct”: naked encounters that went much further than necessary to make an arrest.

Judges tossed the charges brought by the police and prosecutors in three of the cases, and the Minneapolis Police Department promptly announced it would no longer do undercover stings in massage parlors.

Now a lawsuit is portraying the officers as victims, deserving of thousands of dollars in damages from the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the state of Minnesota because their identities became public. The suit invokes a state law that enables undercover officers to operate, as far as public records are concerned, as secret police.

Names, positions, salaries, hiring dates and other information that the public can obtain upon request must be withheld for undercover officers, as long as they’re working in that capacity. The city of Minneapolis once mistakenly released to the Star Tribune a personnel list showing names of employees, their general job titles and salaries, and then recalled it because it included the names of officers it said worked undercover.

After officers no longer work undercover, it’s still possible to prevent the release of personnel info if it’s deemed to “threaten the personal safety of the officer or jeopardize an active investigation,” the law says.

Even sustained disciplinary actions could be off-limits to the public. And it’s when officer conduct is called into question that this law gets hinky.

“That provision can be abused in a way to conceal or cover up improprieties that the public through the media has a legitimate right to know,” said Marshall Tanick, an employment law attorney.

Though it’s three decades old, the law doesn’t get litigated very often. Tanick handled one of those cases, an undercover Albert Lea narcotics officer who sued the city after the chief discussed a plan to discipline him for misconduct. He said that case clearly showed the officer’s privacy was violated. That case settled.

Speaking on behalf of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said there’s good reason to protect their identities.

Defense attorneys constantly try to find out who they are in court, but officers typically push to have charges dismissed rather than have their cover blown, Orput said.

The officers in the prostitution sting — identified in court records as Christopher Reiter, Steven Lecy and Abubakar Muridi — have faced no disciplinary action, and the police union chief says they were following department policy and did nothing wrong.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are identified only as three Minneapolis undercover police officers: John Doe 1, 2 and 3. The lawsuit said the lives of the officers have since been devastated by the publicity of their undercover work.

An attorney for the officers, Joseph Kelly, did not return calls for comment. But he told the Associated Press last month that the lawsuit was related to the prostitution stings.

Attorneys for the city, county and state have filed responses, saying the lawsuit is so vague that they cannot mount a proper defense.

“In my view, this lawsuit makes no sense,” said Jeffrey Dean, who represented two of the defendants whose cases were dismissed. He’s not involved in the civil suit. “In the primary case against my client, the officer took the witness stand and without hesitation, in open court, stated his full name and occupation as an undercover police officer.”

In this era of heightened scrutiny of the way police do their jobs, shielding undercover cops from any public scrutiny doesn’t make sense either.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.