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Public access limited for about 275 St. Paul police reports

March 18, 2019

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Public access to about 275 St. Paul police reports was restricted from 2011 to 2018 by the department’s ‘lockdown’ policy, which made the records invisible except to select police leaders, city prosecutors and civilians who work in police records.

Police said commanders and high-ranking officers would place certain reports on “administrative lockdown” to protect sensitive cases from prying eyes, the Star Tribune reported.

Information from reports can jeopardize investigations, said Steve Linders, the department’s spokesman.

The policy, which was adopted in 2007, sets guidelines but doesn’t include criteria for what qualifies a case for lockdown or details about how and when a report should be unlocked.

Some past cases that have been locked down include an undercover St. Paul officer and confidential informant purchasing a half-pound of meth for $6,800 in 2014, and an officer who fatally shot a man struggling with mental health issues in 2015.

Most cases have since been removed from the classification after a department review, but 40 reports remain on lockdown.

Opponents criticize the practice for its lack of oversight.

“It’s a horrible practice,” said Don Gemberling, an advocate for governmental transparency. “For no criteria as to how those decisions are made and no clear lines of accountability and no one looking over their shoulders, how does anyone know if this is being done appropriately?”

Minneapolis police also put reports on lockdown.

John Elder, the city’s police spokesman, said the department’s civilian records staff can view a report that’s on lockdown, and should be able to create a public version of the report.

Public reports must include certain data outlined by the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, such as the date and location of a call, whether force was used, the name of anyone arrested and a brief description of what occurred.

The law also outlines that law enforcement can temporarily withhold response or incident data if the information could endanger someone’s safety or cause a suspect to flee or destroy evidence.

Civilian staff in the St. Paul department’s police records unit said they couldn’t see lockdown cases until the past few weeks. They were unable to determine if the records existed or provide a public report.

“It is a secret file,” said Rich Neumeister, an activist for open government. “This is a policy that’s rife for mischief and not following the law.”

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Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com