Updated with statements from the Metropolitan Council and Metro Transit, linked to at the bottom of this post.
“Are you here illegally?” asked Metro Transit police officer Andy Lamers of a young man suspected of not paying a $1.75 light rail train fare the night of May 14 in Minneapolis. It’s a question the officer wasn’t allowed to ask, and video of the encounter went viral, eliciting dozens of news stories from around the nation.
Naturally, journalists, civil rights attorneys, and community members wanted to know what happened next: was he cited, arrested, released? Metro Transit wouldn’t say, refusing to so much as provide an incident report or state whether the man was arrested. For almost ten whole days.
At a Metropolitan Council transportation committee meeting on May 22, Chief John Harrington promised an internal investigation, saying immigration enforcement wasn’t his agency’s purpose or function. “He knew he stepped over a line he knew he wasn’t supposed to step over,” the Chief said about the officer, “You do not get cooperation from any community if the first thing they think about when you show up is whether they’re going to be arrested or deported.” But there wasn’t much mention of what happened to the young man.
At a full Metropolitan Council meeting on May 24, community members spoke one by one about how troubled they were before chanting demands for justice. Chief Harrington confirmed for the first time that the young man had been booked into the Hennepin County jail, saying “He has been released and has a court appearance scheduled in the future,” not disclosing anything further about the man’s fate.
Then on May 25—the day after the hearing—Metro Transit Police finally released the incident report, revealing for the first time that the young man was also tasered during the incident. But curiously, the report omitted the man’s name.
State law is very clear: the name of anyone arrested, cited, or deprived of liberty is “at all times public.” We don’t have secret police or secret arrests in America, so it’s a critical measure of accountability and transparency.
I asked Chief Harrington and Metro Transit’s public relations manager Howie Padilla for the name of the man arrested, referring them to statute and asking them to identify which provision of law they felt allowed them to withhold the data. They didn’t respond.
What’s going on here? Why was Metro Transit keeping his name a secret?
Maybe they were trying to protect the young man—but by the looks of it, Metro Transit Police purposely delayed releasing the report until the day after the public hearing to avoid the outrage of protesters. But it gets much worse.
Knowing now that the man was arrested, finding his name shouldn’t have been too difficult: the Hennepin County Sheriff’s jail roster has a list of everyone who has been booked. But after digging through arrests in the roster, nobody was able to find anyone jailed with charges matching the incident report.
But there’s one final place that might have more information: the court. Without a name, though, it requires searching every single case number over a several-day period of time. After hours of searching, I finally found a case matching the charges on the incident report.
The young man was 23-year-old Ariel Vences-Lopez.
I searched Google, hoping to find more about him, and you can imagine my surprise when the first result was the Hennepin County Sheriff’s jail roster entry. Huh? I already looked here! Many people already looked here! He wasn’t there before.
Clicking that link resulted in an error message on the Sheriff’s website. Although at one point the arrest record was public, it no longer was. Although the records of arrestees who have been released are automatically removed from the site, through a review of hourly snapshots of the jail roster that were made available to me, it appeared arrestees who were booked and released around the same time as Vences-Lopez still had their information listed online at the time.
It’s difficult to know what happened. Notably, the Sheriff’s Office has manually suppressed the records of ‘sensitive’ arrests in the past. Luckily, Google still had a cached version of the arrest record available (it’s gone now, though):
On the evening of May 26, the Pioneer Press reported that Vences-Lopez was transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on May 16 after being released from the Hennepin County jail. Court records showed the man asked for an interpreter and was denied court-appointed counsel in Metro Transit’s criminal case, and the Pioneer Press reported that he had also been before a federal immigration judge, who issued an order of removal from the United States.
The optics of this are very, very bad.
It suggests that either Metro Transit Police deliberately concealed the man’s name so activists and civil rights attorneys wouldn’t find out the man was tasered, arrested, in ICE custody, and facing deportation over a $1.75 train fare—or that the Hennepin County Sheriff perhaps withheld details from Metro Transit, the Chief wanting to help but flailing in a crisis.
Keeping the arrest a secret also meant that attorneys who were interested in representing Vences-Lopez were unable to find him. Because news broke late on a Friday night, it’s not known why his application for a court-appointed attorney was denied, or if he was represented by the public defender, or if he had an attorney for the immigration matter. Finding out requires in-person visits to the courthouse, now closed.
Thankfully, the Pioneer Press and several other news organizations have been aggressively following the story, but their job is made unquestionably harder when authorities withhold details. If Metro Transit had been more forthcoming earlier in the week, some of these answers might have been found before a long, silent holiday weekend with Vences-Lopez remaining in ICE custody pending deportation.
Many questions remain.
Did Chief Harrington know the man was in ICE custody—something anyone can search online—when he addressed protesters at the May 24 meeting, or make any attempt to find out? Or did Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek’s office perhaps withhold information? Surely the Chief knew his officer had tasered the young man and booked him into jail, so why did the public find out for the first time on May 24 that he went to jail, and on May 25 that he was tasered?
Was the arrest record suppressed from public view, or was it just a coincidence of timing? Is there a policy on when arrests are suppressed from the jail roster and the reasons why an arrest can be manually suppressed? Did Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Karen Mara—who, according to the court docket, was prosecuting Vences-Lopez for fare evasion—know about the pending deportation?
How did ICE find out before the original video went viral? And how often do fare evasion arrests result in immigration detainers and deportation? Although Vences-Lopez was arrested and booked in Minneapolis, a ‘sanctuary city,’ the 14-year-old immigration separation ordinance only applies to city staff and Minneapolis Police, who weren’t involved.
Neither statement addresses the full gamut of questions, nor details the timeline in how Metro Transit addressed the controversy. The statements said Metro Transit found out the man was in ICE custody because a Pioneer Press reporter told them so, late Friday night. Chair Duininck said prior to learning of the deportation order, the agency was working on possibly placing the Metro rider in a diversion program or having charges dropped.
Both statements seemed to imply Metro Transit was given false information, perhaps by officials at the Hennepin County jail. Chief Harrington stated, “we understood that Vences-Lopez had been released from the custody of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office,” and Chair Duininck said, “At the time we were told the rider had been released from custody, he had actually been in ICE custody for nearly a week.” The statements promised to look into why the agency was allegedly given inaccurate information, and promised to uncover “what went wrong.”