MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota State Patrol officers conducted a mass purge of emails and text messages immediately after their response to riots last summer, leaving holes in the paper trail as the courts and other investigators attempt to reconstruct whether law enforcement used improper force in the chaos following George Floyd's murder.
In a recent court hearing in a lawsuit alleging the State Patrol targeted journalists during the unrest, State Patrol Maj. Joseph Dwyer said he and a "vast majority of the agency" deleted the communiqués after the riots, according to a transcript published to the federal court docket Friday night, Sept. 3.
This file destruction "makes it nearly impossible to track the State Patrol's behavior, apparently by design," said attorneys for Minnesota's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the state patrol and Minneapolis police on behalf of journalists who say they were assaulted by law enforcement while covering the protests and riots.
"The purge was neither accidental, automated, nor routine," said ACLU attorneys, in a court motion that asks a judge to order the State Patrol to cease attacks on journalists who are covering protests. "The purge did not happen because of a file destruction or retention policy. No one reviewed the purged communications before they were deleted to determine whether the materials were relevant to this litigation."
State Patrol spokesman Bruce Gordon said the agents follow all state and agency data retention requirements. "We are unable to comment further due to the ongoing litigation," Gordon said.
The suit, filed on June 3, 2020, alleges that the Minneapolis Police Department and the State Patrol used unnecessary and excessive force to suppress First Amendment rights to cover the unrest last summer. It is one of several lawsuits filed against law enforcement for alleged constitutional violations in use of force last summer.
The lead plaintiff, Jared Goyette, a freelancer who covered the unrest for the Washington Post and The Guardian, was "shot in the face with less-lethal ballistic ammunition" by Minneapolis police on May 27, according to the lawsuit. The suit cites several instances in which Star Tribune reporters also were the target of misconduct by law enforcement, although none are plaintiffs. The Department of Justice is also investigating law enforcement response to the protests and riots, and Minneapolis is conducting its own review of how its agents handled the events of last summer.
The revelations come as Minneapolis police say they're also investigating why officers in the Second Precinct — across the city from where the riots took place — shredded case files during the riots last summer. Attorneys say police destroyed key evidence to charges in a drug prosecution and have asked a Hennepin County Judge to throw out the case.
In the July 28 hearing, Dwyer said they were not acting on an order from on high to delete records, but it's "standard practice" for the troopers to so.
"You just decided, shortly after the George Floyd protests, this would be a good time to clean out my inbox?" asked ACLU attorney Kevin Riach.
Dwyer testified that it's standard practice to do so.
He said it's up each individual at the State Patrol on when they want to delete these records, and it's a "recommended practice" to purge after a major event.
"Are you required to keep email correspondence for a certain period of time?" asked Riach.
"We are not," said Dwyer.
The State Patrol is required to make and keep records of official activity — including text messages and e-mails — per Minnesota data law, said Don Gemberling, spokesman for nonprofit Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. They can only delete them under a schedule approved by a state records retention panel. The Star Tribune asked Gordon of the State Patrol for this schedule, but he did not provide one.
Gemberling said the exchange with Dwyer "doesn't strike me as being consistent with what the statute is trying to accomplish, which is to make sure there's a record of why government does what it does."
"What they've done raises a whole lot of questions," Gemberling said.
The ACLU's recent court filing also said testimony from this hearing showed the State Patrol "concocted false reports to justify the arrest, assault, and use of less-lethal weapons against journalists" and "ignored the Governor's order exempting journalists from curfew restrictions."
"Not one Trooper has been disciplined or reprimanded for their misconduct," the attorneys say. "Instead, at the very highest levels, State Defendants have turned a blind eye to the Troopers' illegal acts."
The transcript also features comments from Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington on the on-air arrest of CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez. Harrington said he was concerned to hear about the arrest of the Jimenez and his crew. "I really do believe that the media is a partner that we need to work with and it is — whenever you are making an arrest, I think, especially an arrest of the media, I think that's something that should be — that is concerning," he said.
But Harrington said he never initiated an investigation into the arrest, because "CNN did not ever file a complaint with internal affairs alleging any misconduct against the State Patrol subsequent to that."
In an interview Sunday, Sept. 5, Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU, said "the failure to investigate such a high-profile and improper arrest speaks to a larger issue with a lack of accountability for misconduct."
In another exchange, Dwyer said that he believed people were posing as media during the protests in Brooklyn Center in April, after officer Kimberly Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright. Dwyer estimated 300 people, almost one-third of the crowd, were pretending to be media.
"Individuals that I would come in contact with ... would say, 'I'm a member of the media' or 'I'm press,'" Dwyer said.
"So you are extrapolating from your experience that 300 people falsely claimed to be media on the night of April 12th?" Riach asked.
"There is some degree of that, yes," Dwyer replied.
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