Other’s opinion: Transparency: BCA must clear public records bottleneck

Published 6:03 pm Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Mankato Free Press. November 19

It would be troubling enough if the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension was not able to provide public records to a family of a victim of a police shooting. But to not provide records on five police shootings is more than concerning.

The five families of victims have filed a lawsuit against the BCA claiming it has violated the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The case seems straightforward in favor of the plaintiffs if the investigations are indeed “inactive” or complete. State law requires release of the information in those cases.

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But the BCA told The Free Press Friday that it will release the information to the families as soon as possible after it has reviewed “voluminous” reports, body cam, dashcam and surveillance footage and images because by law it must remove information not considered public data.

A BCA spokesperson wrote in an email to The Free Press: “The BCA is committed to providing information to families and the public as quickly as possible, while ensuring the protection of information that we cannot release under Minnesota law.”

The cases have been closed and no charges were brought against any police officer, but the fact of closure, according to Minnesota law, requires police agencies to release records of the investigation to the public with few exceptions. Plaintiffs argued the BCA is in violation of the Data Practices Act because they were not supplied information on their cases in 10 days after requesting the information.

All cases have been closed for months, and one family has been waiting three years for their report. That’s significant in that the statute of limitations for a wrongful death case in Minnesota is three years.

The cases involve deaths by police shootings of Dolal Idd, Zachary Shogren, Okwan Sims, Tekle Sunberg and Brent Alsleben. The families held a press conference Thursday at the Ramsey County Courthouse to announce the lawsuit.

The BCA is a major law enforcement agency with significant power in Minnesota. It takes over many serious criminal investigations across Minnesota that smaller agencies can’t handle.

The agency formed a special use of force team after the George Floyd murder that is an independent team of 13 investigators and scientists that are charged with putting together evidence for cases within 60 days. The officers are only assigned use of force cases and do not interact with other police agencies or work on cases with other BCA agents. That’s a sound way to handle these cases, but the delays with data practices requests is troubling.

The volume of evidence in these cases can be substantial, especially with review hours of videotape from body cams and other webcams.

But the families say they’ve been told by the BCA they’re too busy or don’t have the time. That’s not a good reason. If the BCA needs more resources and more investigators to get families information in a timely manner, the Legislature and the governor should provide those resources.

The suit will be one of the first of its kind against the BCA and a judge will rule on whether the information should be released. But the public release of the information is critical not only so the families can understand what happened, but so the public can scrutinize police activity as well.