Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What does Brodkorb, Gauthier, & Minneapolis Cops have in common?

What Michael Brodkorb, Rep. Gauthier, and the Minneapolis Police Department have in common are the following:

1. Are subjects of Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requests.
2. The requests themselves have created or are creating policy discussion with the public, and
3. The public and policymakers discovered activities that raise questions on what government is doing.

The top basic action tool for accountability and transparency of state and local government is for a person to make a data practices request.  The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act is a law which we have given ourselves through the Legislature to make sure that government runs right, is accountable, and there are no shenanigans going on.

When there was public discussion several months ago of a civil suit possibility by Michael Brodkorb, the public and media wanted information.  Out came the data practices request either orally or written by members of the news media and the public to the Minnesota Senate.   The response was sorry the Minnesota Senate is not under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.  Many people were surprised by that. This meant that information that was public with the state executive branch among others, and all local political subdivisions were not available to the public.  An example, was the contract between the Minnesota Senate and their lawyer and the amount paid the attorney. The Senate finally released the data, but pursuant to their own wishes, not by law.  Should not the Minnesota Legislature be under the same law that it applies to everyone else?

The Gauthier episode involves a data practices request by a reporter of the Duluth Tribune for public data on an elected public official, Rep. Gauthier.  Knowledge came to the Duluth Tribune that an investigation was on going with Gauthier.  The request was made to the Duluth Police Department and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety(State Patrol)for all public data.  The Duluth authorities and the State Patrol were not forthcoming in giving the public data for a number of reasons highlighted by media reports.  There was "talk" from Duluth law enforcement per "high profile" cases or that the Department of Public Safety believed in a different interpretation of the law therefore no release of public data.  But what the public has gained from this data practices request is insight how law enforcement have different databases or files based on who you are.  Secondly, issues of access to public data.  Finally if you are a "high profile" person you get special treatment. There are a number of policy issues this affair raises for accountability and transparency how law enforcement operates and investigates people.

The Star Tribune did a story two weeks ago on license plate readers primarily focusing on how the Minneapolis Police Department has collected millions of license plate scans.  The reporter did a number of data practices requests, but he also did one on himself.  A great number of people think you use the Data Practices Act to make requests only on public data, far from it.  People can ask for data about themselves which may be public or private.  Government collects lots of data on us for a number of reasons from professional licenses to oversee health care in Minnesota.

The reporter made a request under data practices for the times that the license plate readers saw his car or whatever data they may have had on him in the license scan database.  He got the information and with it the journalist pieced a story to let the public know about this new law enforcement tool and how a database with millions of records on individuals was being collected and for what purposes.  The story ignited public discussion as evident by a follow up story by the same reporter last week. These data practices requests have made for sure legislation on the horizon.

By highlighting these three events I am emphasizing the importance of the principle of "right to know" to get an idea of what your government is doing.  You do not have to be a member of the news media to make a data practices request.

Thousand's of people do requests every year, from the restaurant owner who wants to look at their inspection report, or the person who is denied a job based on an incorrect criminal history.  Some of my recent data requests are finding out, for example, about agencies doing surveillance on people, or agencies not having protocols/policies when it comes to getting private information on individuals.  Some of my requests are showing agencies doing things "right" also.

If you want to learn more about the Data Practices Act and how to make requests check out the following websites or contact me through Twitter or e-mail which is on this blog site.




  1. Also add in the Courts. They get to set their own public information laws which is wrong. They along with the legislature should be subject to the same rules as the executive branch.

    For example, it is ridiculous that the public portions of an employees work record changes depending upon which branch of government they work in when there is no public safety issue.

  2. Rich,

    I requested information from the DNR regarding a Conservation Officer who in/around 2001 went to a report of "Dogs harassing deer", showed up to the scene, saw no deer, saw no dogs, so he drove around. He found a house with three dogs, took them from the yard and shot them behind his truck and left them in a snowbank.

    I requested all public info about the incident and the CO in question. DNR politely told me to go fuck myself. The incident itself should have been public, but nope. Nothing.

  3. Hi Rich,

    The Duluth News Tribune stories on the Gauthier incident left out critical facts about police response to their data request. Here is an editorial I wrote for the News Tribune in response:

    The recent case involving state Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, brought attention to the public release of criminal investigation data. When we at the Duluth Police Department investigate a sex crime, we treat the case as not public during the investigation. Information intentionally or accidentally released to the public at that point could negatively damage the investigation in a variety of ways, as well as impact witness, victim and suspect statements. The data of an active criminal investigation are deemed, according to data privacy law, as private and not public.

    When our investigation into the Gauthier case was complete, it became public, and records associated with the case were released. We consulted with legal counsel throughout this case, as we knew our actions would be highly scrutinized.

    Attorneys consulted at the time of a News Tribune request for information explicitly told us Gauthier’s name and investigative data were not to be considered public at that point.

    An issue that became the focus of News Tribune reports was a feature with our records system that can limit access to a case being treated as non-public, allowing access only to those investigating or supervising the case. This is done in police-record systems to ensure data we consider non-public does not get released until absolutely appropriate.

    In some criminal cases, if non-public data is released, it could cause irreparable damage to the case.

    Another example of where this feature was used involved a recently solved St. Louis County homicide case, in which witness safety was of great concern. The witnesses were scared for their lives. If their names were released they faced the potential for serious harm.

    Keep in mind our records system users are from agencies from Pine County to Ely. There probably are close to 1,000 users. A case is team-protected only during the time the case is deemed non-public. When the case reaches the threshold of being public, the case is viewable by everyone.

    The issue brought forth by the News Tribune had absolutely no bearing on the release of the case information.

    We did a thorough job of investigating the Gauthier incident and provided the case information as soon as the investigation was completed, which was three weeks after the Minnesota State Patrol asked us to investigate.

    The Duluth Police Department takes great pride in the support and respect we have in our community. This is not a given, but has been earned through our commitment to service and transparency. News Tribune writer Brandon Stahl reported the incident in a manner that put into question our organizational integrity. Mischaracterizations and the absence of crucial facts were major errors in Stahl’s reporting. Articles may have misled readers into believing there was an attempt to cover up this incident. That could not be further from the truth.

    The coverage suggested we didn’t release public information because of Rep. Gauthier’s position. Our decision was based on the determination made by our legal counsel that Gauthier’s name and case data not be treated as public at that point during the investigation.

    We would welcome any unbiased review of the facts of this case, and we know it would lead to no other conclusion than we acted with absolute integrity and within the guidelines of the law.

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