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What my yearlong effort to get information about an officer-involved traffic accident reveals about Minnesota’s public records laws

After witnessing an accident involving Minneapolis police officers, I decided to use the incident as a way to look the MPD’s response to citizen requests for public information. 

The aftermath of a June 28, 2019, crash in North Loop that involved a Minneapolis Police Department squad car and an SUV. The squad car ran a stop sign and t-boned the car driven by a Minnetonka man.
The aftermath of a June 28, 2019, crash in North Loop that involved a Minneapolis Police Department squad car and an SUV. The squad car ran a stop sign and t-boned the car driven by a Minnetonka man.
Photo by Suki Dardarian

It was early in the evening of Friday, June 28, 2019, when a Minneapolis police squad car ran a stop sign and t-boned an SUV in front of a few handfuls of pedestrians and some outdoor diners at a North Loop restaurant.

The SUV, a 2018 Lexus, was hit on the rear door and rear quarter panel on the passenger side. The force spun the car before it came to a stop a few feet from the group of outdoor diners sitting at the corner of North 4th Street and 6th Avenue North. 

The squad, which didn’t appear to have slowed, came to rest across the intersection, steam billowing from its engine grill.

After the collision, the driver of the SUV appeared to have non-life threatening injuries, and both police officers got out of their vehicle and were walking around, though dazed. All were later taken or drove themselves to area hospitals. Both the Lexus and the squad were damaged and towed away later in the evening.

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I know all this because I was one of the pedestrians who witnessed the crash, along with my wife and one of my daughters. We were also nearly victims, having halted our crossing of a street when the squad car entered our peripheral vision as it swung around a car waiting at a stop sign on North 4th Street as it crosses 6th Avenue. The squad was moving fast — it was rushing to a call four blocks away — and driving without its emergency lights or siren on.

As the police vehicle entered the other traffic lane near us, we stepped back toward the curb, hoping that the civilian car would clear the intersection before the squad raced through. 

It didn’t.

It was unusual, but not that unusual. After giving my name and number to the driver of the Lexus, and after checking on the officers, we went on with our evening. So did the others who’d watched the brief drama.

I write about it now, a year-plus later, only because I decided to use the incident to measure the Minneapolis Police Department’s response to citizen requests under Minnesota Data Practices Act, the law designed to guarantee that Minnesotans have access to public records, and the state’s statutes governing the use of body-worn cameras by police. 

I’d used the state Data Practices Act as a reporter since arriving in the state in 2014 and found that it has major flaws. The first being that — unlike in other states — there is no time requirement for any agency to respond to a request. The second being there are no significant penalties for those agencies that fail to respond to a request, even if the agency does so intentionally. 

But I was curious what the experience would be like for a member of the public who wanted information about an event that wasn’t particularly newsworthy. What would the MPD hand over? What would they not? And how long would it take? 

The initial response

The Monday after the incident, I made requests to the MPD for investigative reports and any available video: body cams, grill cams and any street camera footage. To approximate the experience most people might have, I made the request under my own name but didn’t identify myself as a reporter or mention my association with MinnPost.

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The department’s initial response came relatively quickly, providing what is called the public report within three weeks of the request. The public report is the document that might be provided to reporters doing daily police logs: dates and times and whatever offenses were involved. It showed that Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamud Jama was driving the squad and that Officer Daadir Galayr was his partner. The time of the incident was 18:15 hours, or 6:15 p.m.

The two incidents listed were “MPD Squad Accident” and “MV Accident Damage Report.” 

“While officers were going to a call, the squad struck a moving vehicle that was crossing the intersection,” Galayr wrote. The report also noted that the driver of the Lexus was a 22-year-old man named Justice Niko Feldman. 

The same brief description notes that “BWC and MVR were used,” referring to body worn cameras and mobile video recording, i.e. squad-mounted cameras. 

And that was it.

At the time, I was told by records management staff that I was not legally entitled to the body-worn camera footage because I was not a crime victim, did not appear in the video nor was I interviewed on camera by officers. 

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The state law governing body worn camera video was intended to protect victims and witnesses who might be recorded in their homes or other locales where there is an expectation of privacy. The same statute, however, restricts video that, as in this case, records outdoors in a public setting where there is no expectation of privacy (and where public and private video cameras already capture events on the street).

But I had a question: Might we have shown up in Jama’s body camera footage as he passed us in the crosswalk? 

Unlikely, I was told. 

Still waiting

Once I had the names of the officers involved, I also made a request for their personnel files, including any disciplinary records. Both Jama and Galayr were relatively new officers at the time of the accident, and neither had ever been disciplined.

I should say here that the overworked MPD records unit did their best to respond to my requests, often offering tips for how best to ask what I was looking for. But they are restricted by the Data Practices Act, and have no control over how long the department takes to complete internal investigations, which is what can trigger the release of information. 

On Oct. 2, three months after the accident, a second set of records was sent by the department. This was the more extensive report, known as the “General Offense Hardcopy — Case Report With Narratives” for a case type now dubbed “property damage accident.” 

This report included interview notes with officers, Feldman and witnesses to the incident.

Officer Joseph Robert Will, an MPD officer whose duties include accident investigation and DWI testing, wrote that he was dispatched at 6:21 p.m. to an accident scene involving MPD officers and squad. When he arrived, he saw the Lexus with substantial damage to the passenger side, and the vehicle’s side airbags had been deployed. 

He spoke with Galayr, who complained of a sore forehead, and with Feldman, who was already on a stretcher in an ambulance complaining of pain in his ribs and neck. “In talking with Feldman, he stated that he was driving toward Washington Avenue N, which would be (northbound),” the report noted. 

The next three lines of the report were redacted, citing the Data Practices Act’s “private data on individuals” exemption. Feldman’s attorney later told me that Feldman told officers he was on the way to a family dinner.

Will also reported that other officers who had viewed the MVR video said the squad was running without lights and sirens, and that it entered the intersection without slowing or stopping at the stop sign. There were no skid marks in the intersection (though a court complaint filed later says that “internal vehicle data” indicated the squad car was traveling 22 miles per hour at impact but was going 26 miles per hour five seconds before the crash). 

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Both officers in the squad said they had taken off their seatbelts and turned off the emergency lights and siren as they were approaching their destination, which was four blocks away.

The same response to my request includes a report from a First Precinct supervisor, who reported that he also viewed the car video and wrote that “it is recommended that the Squad Accident Review Committee review the video for the accident.”

As with the body camera footage, I was told I wasn’t entitled to the report of the department’s internal Accident Review Committee — at least not yet.

In fact, though some of what I asked for has been produced, much has not. Not only do I not have the Accident Review Committee report, for example, I don’t know whether it is complete. Only if the findings of the committee result in discipline of an officer would a memo be added to the officer’s personnel file. That memo, which would be public, would describe the disposition of the disciplinary action and the reasons and basis for the discipline.

The same is true of the video footage of the incident. A state law adopted in 2016, signed by then Gov. Mark Dayton over the objections of civil liberties and police watchdog groups, classifies most police video as non-public. The exceptions include footage that shows the discharge of a firearm (except for during training and in cases in which an animal is shot); the use of force that results in substantial bodily harm; or if the video is placed in the public personnel file of an officer. Some in the Legislature at the time also wanted footage recorded in public places to be public, but the final law make no such distinction.

A different state law makes public “the final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action, excluding data that would identify confidential sources who are employees of the public body.”

In other words, only when the internal affairs investigation of Officer Jama is complete — and only if Jama is disciplined and the video was used to further the investigation — would footage of the accident become public. 

There is one other way for any police video to become public: if the subjects of the data (i.e. the people recorded in the footage), including police officers, request to have the data made public, though law enforcement then has to redact identities of “non-consenting data subjects” and undercover officers. 

Brian Stofferahn, a Minneapolis attorney who has filed a damages claim against the city on behalf of Feldman, said he intends to request copies of the body worn camera video and the squad car video but hasn’t done so yet. He said he is also preparing a “demand package” which will include the damages Feldman will claim. He said it will be less than the city’s damages cap of $1.5 million but more than the $50,000 placeholder amount of the initial notice of claim.

In June of 2020, Jama was charged with a misdemeanor traffic offense for this incident: failure to stop at stop signs or stop lines “in a manner or under circumstances so as to endanger or be likely to endanger any person or property.” 

The complaint was filed by a Minneapolis police commander but was turned over to the St. Paul City Attorney’s office to avoid a conflict of interest.

It is set for a hearing Oct. 19.