Brandon Stahl, Forum Communications, Published August 24 2012
House subcommittee investigating Duluth policeDULUTH, Minn. – A Minnesota House subcommittee is investigating how the Duluth Police Department keeps some of its records in the wake of the Kerry Gauthier investigation, saying the department “appears to have violated the law in order to avoid disclosing public data” in the case.
That was written in a letter sent to Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay by Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who chairs the Subcommittee on Data Practices.
Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said Wednesday he will stop his re-election campaign after a police report revealed he engaged in oral sex with a 17-year-old boy in a rest area.
The St. Louis County Attorney’s Office has said charges are not warranted in the case of Gauthier’s rest-stop liaison because the age of consent in Minnesota is 16. Because the boy didn’t know Gauthier was a legislator, he couldn’t be charged for using his position of authority over a juvenile, either.
In her letter, Scott said news reports “indicate that your department twice failed to comply with requests for public data related to the Gauthier investigation.”
Duluth police said the investigation on Gauthier was categorized in its database as high-profile, meaning that only a few officers in the department knew about the case and could see the information. That’s why, when Forum Communications initially asked for information on the case, the Department responded on Aug. 8 that none existed. At that time, the officers who did the search didn’t have access to that case, according to Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser.
Roeser said the police database is shared by about 30 law enforcement agencies, including St. Louis County and the cities of Proctor and Hermantown. Some cases are marked as high-profile to prevent other users of the database from looking at that information.
“We want to guard against someone in a different law enforcement agency being curious, looking up information and potentially sharing it,” Roeser said.
Reacting to Scott’s letter about the subcommittee investigation, Ramsay said he thinks his department follows data practice law and handled release of the Gauthier information appropriately.
In her letter to Ramsay, Scott said maintaining public data on “high-profile” cases and keeping those cases separated from others was “highly inappropriate and a clear violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.”
The Data Practices Act requires certain information on calls for service to police to be made public, regardless of whether the call results in a criminal investigation. That information includes the date and time of the call, the agencies involved, the nature of the request of the activity being complained of, a brief reconstruction of the event and names of witnesses to the incident.
“By restricting access to public data related (to) incidents involving ‘high profile’ individuals, the Duluth Police Department has created two sets of rules for handling public data,” Scott wrote in her letter to Ramsay. “For regular people, requests for data will be processed according to the rules of Chapter 13. For ‘high-profile’ people, the police will decide which data to release and when to release it.”
Scott’s subcommittee has jurisdiction over what goes into the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which governs what data is public and what is private in the state. The committee also has oversight on how data created by state or local governments is treated, according to committee administrator John Reynolds.
Scott’s letter asks the Duluth Police Department to: explain how it defines and determines what makes a case high-profile; cite which part of the law allows police to deem individuals “high profile”; and tell how the department segregates and restricts access to data on high-profile cases and how long it has followed that practice.
Not all members of the data practices subcommittee agree with Scott.
John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who works as a prosecutor for the city of St. Paul, said police should be able to restrict access to cases in its databases, even to its own officers.
“If some of that stuff gets out, sensitive information could be revealed and someone’s life could be in danger,” he said.
But he said that whoever processes a data request should have full access to the database to determine what is public and non-public data.
“They have to develop policies and procedures so the person fielding the requests has full access to the records,” he said.
Roeser said the officer who initially searched for information on the Gauthier case at the request of Forum Communications should have had access to it.
“But even if that had come up, I don’t know if it would have been any different in terms of information released,” Roeser said. “There are legal interpretations of what is and what is not public data.”
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Brandon Stahl writes for the Duluth News Tribune