Drama unfolded this week as Minneapolis Chief of Police Janeé Harteau selected controversial former police union leader John Delmonico to head north Minneapolis’ 4th police precinct, eliciting a prompt and public rejection of the appointment by Mayor Betsy Hodges.
Naturally, reporters jumped into action, digging into what exactly transpired: communications fumble or political retribution? To some, Delmonico’s selection was an inequitable and obvious political calculus on the part of Chief Harteau. To others, Delmonico’s former spats with the mayor were just part of his job, and he would be a capable leader.
The Star Tribune filed a public records request, seeking a look into text messages between Mayor Hodges and Chief Harteau as the decision was made. While Minneapolis Police routinely take days or weeks to so much as substantively acknowledge data requests, the newspaper was quickly told, according to an article written by reporter Adam Belz, that “…the request will take at least a month to satisfy, perhaps requiring a subpoena for the cell provider.”
But with Chief Harteau in the media spotlight, she didn’t want to wait. So, she “shared the content of several text messages and allowed a reporter to verify the time stamps.” The Star Tribune ultimately quoted several texts sent to and from the Mayor, and the exact times those messages were sent.
I asked Belz how it went down. Was he invited into Chief Harteau’s office to get his hands on her cell phone directly, allowed to peruse through her texts? Belz refused to say. “I like the way we explained it in the story, and I’m going to leave it at that,” he tweeted.
Chief Harteau apparently justified her decision to directly show a reporter the text messages because “we can’t wait for a month,” she said, “Getting the correct information out there is important to the overall safety of our community.”
That’s odd, because when a reporter asked for correspondence about a funding proposal for the very precinct Delmonico was slated to lead, he was made to wait over a year for the data. When a researcher asked MPD for audit documents they were required to have already-prepared regarding their use of license plate readers, it took MPD three months to hand it over. When I asked for data about police handling of Black Lives Matter protests, it took over 11 months and a threat of litigation to get the data. When another journalist asked for data about violent crime trends, it took seven months to get the data.
All of these seem like information important to ‘community safety’ and prompt responses aren’t just deserved, they’re required by law. Yet nobody invited any of us into Chief Harteau’s office to peruse through texts within a day or two of asking. Maybe we weren’t asking questions Chief Harteau wanted to answer. Maybe we weren’t asking MPD for data they wanted made public.
The fact is: if government breaks all tradition and protocol to expedite your freedom of information request, it’s because it’s politically advantageous for them to do so. And any reporting should be cautiously tempered by that fact.
Of course, in an article about Delmonico’s appointment reversal, I don’t expect Belz to do a deep-dive into the intricacies of the Data Practices Act. There’s a certain amount of irony, though, because Minnesota government agencies have routinely called text messages “transitory data” they need not retain nor disclose, and instant messages are sometimes retained for 24 hours or less. But Chief Harteau seemed eager to provide these texts.
I also don’t admonish Belz for seizing upon a prime newsgathering opportunity. But the circumstances and risks should be made abundantly clear to the public. Belz’s article lacks transparency about his methods, and lacks the disclosure that the newspaper wasn’t given the full story, including the possibility that the appointment was communicated to foes of Mayor Hodges in advance. It cuts corners on an election-year story in the interest of breaking news.
I fear that allowing government to get away with selectively choosing how quickly they produce data in relation to how much they like the potential narrative hurts the perception and efficacy of sunshine laws.
So did Belz get played? I don’t know, because I have yet to receive anyone’s personal invitation to go look through their phone in response to the data request that I submitted on the subject. But I do know Delmonico is a seasoned professional at getting reporters to twist the figurative knives he’s stabbed in his opponent’s chests: the #Pointergate and 911 hold time stories come to mind. And Hodges certainly isn’t doing herself any favors with slow and underwhelming responses to journalists. (No surprise, she did not respond to my requests for comment either.)
In spite of all this, there’s something to be appreciated about a freedom of information Hunger Games of sorts, where two conflicting bureaucrats compete for who can be most transparent to a reporter’s request for records. In such a game, Chief Harteau would have won on the strategy, Mayor Hodges on the merits, and losing as per usual are the residents of North Minneapolis, currently serving as City Hall’s chessboard.
Update – April 29 – 8:59 p.m.
» » Sure enough, Belz is out with a new story tonight—about 24 hours after the original one—confirming Chief Harteau “informed Council Member Lisa Goodman and Council President Barb Johnson that she wanted to appoint Delmonico to the Fourth Precinct post before she told the mayor…”
This is a major revelation that completely changes the dynamic and perception of yesterday’s text message story, and exemplifies everything I’ve said here. At this point, given the lack of transparency from Belz, I think it’s safe to upgrade that “Was Belz played?” question to a solid yes.