Minnesota law enforcement befuddled and bewildered by laws?


What I read in the Star Tribune today about law enforcement’s behavior and antics of finding “a way around the law” is nothing new. I have seen, experienced, and observed this kind of behavior for decades by law enforcement. As some of the readers of this post may know I have been in the forefront of privacy and public records laws for a very long time.

Some examples in my view of law enforcement behavioral perplexities:

In my numerous requests of public data from Minnesota law enforcement agencies I am always at one time or another in “argument” with cops over what is public or not. Even though the law enforcement official knows it’s public I will not be given it because of their interpretation of law or because of “their” reason which they will not tell me.

Another experience was in the late 1980’s when I worked on our state laws to make accountable how law enforcement use wiretap and electronic communication laws to get access to our e-mails and phone conversations. When the 1989 wiretap law was passed by the Minnesota Legislature it set better protection for our electronic communications and accountability than most states and the federal government.

But lo and behold, law enforcement found a loophole to be able to get access to people’s communication over the phone. Intent of law was to give privacy of communication and could only be intercepted with a search warrant Some of us may remember the cordless phone. It was basically a hand held phone which came off the base station of the phone which also be hood on the wall.

Some law enforcement people started to intercept the frequency from the base to the hand held phone. Some cops felt they did not need a search warrant for interception. I found out about this and worked with legislators on legislation to plug the hole. “Was this a “way around the law”? I think it was.

Even in the last few years through today a view within law enforcement continues as to how to “guardedly” skim around the law without actually breaking it. Whether it be a determination done by the Commissioner of Public Safety which made data secret at MNJAC (Fusion Center) that’s been public for decades. This action has raised some scrutiny and questions by legislators and public.

Or discussions of how to possibly set up a new data base to take the place of GangNet with maybe not going to the Legislature for direction and guidance. An end around? Another example, is how law enforcement interprets the conceal and carry law. Some gun rights people have said to me that people are denied permits contrary to law. What usually happens though, individual denied by the Sheriff, but win on appeal.

So what causes this behavior by law enforcement? This is my general take:

Law enforcement takes their job very seriously to protect people from harm and to promote public safety. Anyone who questions what they do and how they do it can be perceived as a block to their mission. Particularly if it is from a different angle and approach from the cops perspective.

A general attitude of you “can trust us” we’re the cops, we know what we are doing.

A very strong point of view of suspicion and skepticism of privacy and open records laws. The laws make cops jobs harder to do.

So what is the future in Minnesota of these attitudes by law enforcement?

First, it is important to say the attitude of how to “get around the law” is not a majority opinion or attitude of many of the Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs.

What the majority of police leadership want in this state is clarity of law. Does law enforcement use unintelligibly of law to their advantage, yes they do. There may be a number of law enforcement officials who want the “unintelligibly”.

What the public demands is accountability, transparency, and honesty, not obfuscation by law enforcement. How the institutions of law enforcement do their duties and responsibilities and in following the laws matter to all of us.