As one of the most highly scrutinized government agencies, law enforcement must be as transparent as possible to maintain public trust. Ethically and legally under state data practices rules, incident reports must mostly be open to the public.
But recent news that the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) withheld information it shouldn’t have, casts doubt upon whether the department lived up to that responsibility.
As a recent Star Tribune news story described, when a reporter was refused access to a two-year-old case file, he learned that about 275 case files had been on SPPD “administrative lockdown” since 2011. According to department officials, that means higher-ranking officers and supervisors decided to block the information from public view.
SPPD has a written policy that describes general guidelines for withholding information, but has no specific criteria for what can be kept private or how or when a case should be unlocked. That appears to be completely at the discretion of commanding officers and other investigations supervisors. After the reporter’s inquiry, St. Paul police officials reviewed their records and “unlocked” about 235 of the case files because the investigations were completed and the cases had been adjudicated.
SPPD information officer Steve Linders told an editorial writer that the department had “a problem” with its records management and hadn’t been “very good about unlocking cases.” He said the problem has been corrected, adding that the public parts of the reports were always available. The lockdown just meant that some internal employees didn’t have access and in turn couldn’t provide the information to an inquiring reporter.
But the fact that so many reports that should have been open for public review weren’t for several years raises questions. Perhaps even those that remain on lockdown shouldn’t be. What other information about police operations may be improperly shielded from public scrutiny?
As stated in Minnesota’s Data Practices Act, police reports must at minimum include the date and location of a call, whether force was used, the name of anyone arrested and a brief description of what occurred, among other details. That law also says law enforcement may “temporarily withhold response or incident data” if the information could place someone in danger or cause a suspect to flee or destroy evidence.
State rules allow for keeping some incident information private during active investigations, said Mark Anfinson, a data practices expert and Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney. There is no need, he added, for an administrative lockdown category of secrecy.
“When a case meets the legal criteria for being inactive, the entire file is presumptively public,” with a few exceptions outlined in the law, he said.
Minneapolis and other law enforcement agencies also restrict public access to information about active cases when they believe the material could jeopardize investigations. And they should do that only as far as the law allows.
Although they recognize that police departments have the legal flexibility to withhold some information, local data and civil rights activists rightly question the transparency of “lockdown” policies. “I think it’s completely wrong,” David McKinney, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune. “I think the legal footing for this practice is suspect.”
In the interest of greater accountability — and following state law — Minnesota law enforcement agencies should review their records management protocols and do what it takes to make them more transparent.