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What the release of the Amir Locke shooting video reveals about Minnesota public access laws

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  1. Freedom of Information
The release of police bodycam footage highlights the discretionary application of the state's public access laws.

Police body-worn camera footage recently released by the city of Minneapolis shows a SWAT team officer with the Minneapolis Police Department fatally shooting 22-year-old Amir Locke 10 seconds into executing a no-knock warrant at Locke’s apartment in the early morning hours of Feb. 2. In addition, the city released a still-frame of the video showing Locke awakening from the couch he was sleeping on when the officers entered the apartment, holding a pistol facing the floor.

The slowed-down 14-second clip and still-frame were released voluntarily by the city pursuant to a state law titled “Comprehensive Law Enforcement Data, Public Benefit Data.”

Police bodycam footage is generally classified as private/non-public under two separate Minnesota statutes — 13.825 or 626.19 — but the Public Benefit Data subsection provides discretion to a law enforcement agency to decide that the public disclosure of such confidential or non-public data, here the body camera footage, “will aid law enforcement process, promote public safety, or dispel widespread rumor or unrest.”

This section appears to provide discretion to the law enforcement agency to decide how much of the record to make available as well, made apparent here by the brevity of the footage released. The publicly available video begins as officers enter Locke’s apartment with a key and cuts off abruptly as the SWAT officer’s gun is discharged. It does not include extended footage that might show if officers had a discussion before entering the apartment or what happened after Locke was fatally shot.

As this newsletter has highlighted, providing public access to government records promotes important interests, like accountability for officials and transparency and trust for citizens. There is little question that police bodycam footage should be a public record, and in many states it is subject to disclosure. However, extensive exemptions, like those for active criminal investigations in Minnesota, often obscure these records from the public past the point where the exemption is relevant, like when a plea has already been entered.

Further, while the Public Benefit Data subsection provides an avenue for the release of bodycam footage and other records that can otherwise be exempt, the discretion it grants law enforcement could lead to selective implementation, which undermines the accountability and transparency promoted by a public access statute in the first place. This disclosure becomes even more important considering the records covered under this section are those disclosures deemed to “promote public safety” or “dispel widespread rumor or unrest.”

This potential for selective release was illustrated in another case in Minneapolis, that of Hennepin County Sheriff David Hutchinson, who pled guilty and was sentenced to two years’ probation for a misdemeanor driving-while-intoxicated charge for his Dec. 8, 2021, crash of a county-owned SUV. An investigation into the case revealed that Hutchinson reached a speed of 126 mph on a Minnesota interstate before rolling the vehicle off the highway and then told officers on the scene that he was not driving.

However, Minnesota State Patrol chose not to release the car’s dashboard camera footage and images of the scene under the Public Benefit Data subsection, instead withholding the records under the “investigative data” exemption despite the fact that a guilty plea had been entered, according to a freelance reporter who sought the records. Bodycam footage from Hutchinson still has not been released, as the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office told the reporter that, pursuant to Minnesota statute 13.825, “only a data subject can consent to the release of body camera video. Since Sheriff Hutchinson has not consented to its release, it will not be made available.”

Just the potential for selective disclosure here can lead the public to mistrust authorities. And it raises an important question: If footage of a county sheriff driving 126 mph with a blood-alcohol content almost twice the legal limit is not a record subject to disclosure for the public benefit to “promote public safety” or “dispel widespread rumor or unrest,” what is?

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The Technology and Press Freedom Project at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press uses integrated advocacy — combining the law, policy analysis, and public education — to defend and promote press rights on issues at the intersection of technology and press freedom, such as reporter-source confidentiality protections, electronic surveillance law and policy, and content regulation online and in other media. TPFP is directed by Reporters Committee attorney Gabe Rottman. He works with Stanton Foundation National Security/Free Press Legal Fellow Grayson Clary and Technology and Press Freedom Project Legal Fellow Gillian Vernick.

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