|UMD journalism students Dave Buckner and Abel Gustafson.|
Last Spring, University of Minnesota Duluth journalism students in the Research for Reporters class got real-world experience in respect to the freedom of the press. Their assignment was to go to area police departments and request arrest data from that week. This should have been an easy task, as the information is required by law to be public. This assignment, however, proved to be more difficult than predicted.
In September 2008, during Constitution Week, a panel discussion was held on the Minnesota Data Practices Act and the first-hand research gathered by the students. Instructor Chris Julin, the facilitator of the event, was pleased with his spring assignment. “I thought it went great,” he said. “I’m tickled at the student’s stick-to-it-iveness. They acted very professionally.”
The panel consisted of two students from the Research for Reporters class, Dave Buckner and Abel Gustafson, along with Julin. After an overview of the law itself and an explanation of the class assignment by Julin, the students recounted their experiences.
Both Gustafson and Buckner had been assigned to the State Troopers’ office located in Duluth. Although the law states exactly what information must be available to the public at all times, the students were not allowed to view the week’s arrest reports despite several visits to the station. It was not until weeks later, after a formal “freedom of information” request letter was sent to the station that the students were granted possession of the requested information in exchange for a $5 “processing fee”. "No one could have predicted how the assignment was going to turn out," said Gustafson. Buckner agreed. "It was supposed to be a one-time thing," he said. "It ended up taking the entire semester."
Though most of the police stations visited were not as difficult to deal with as the State Trooper's office, according to the panel, the Duluth Police Department (DPD) was the only one who seemed prepared to abide by the law to its full extent.
The issue is vital because if Data Practices Act was not enforced, a police agency would have the ability to arrest and hold any citizen without public knowledge. “This is important to journalists and everybody else,” said Gustafson. “We live in America; they can’t just haul somebody away without answering for it." Gustafson suggested that all of the departments agreed with the spirit of the law. "I don't believe the police were purposely withholding information," he said.
The overwhelming theme, according to the panel, seemed to be a lack of experience on the part of the police officers. Apparently, many of the departments are not approached on a regular basis for arrest data like the DPD does, therefore they don't know how to handle the requests. Julin pointed out that the departments were not flagrantly violating the law, and they were not “bad guys”; there was just a lot of confusion over the entire process. The Hermantown Police Department even thanked Gustafson for bringing the law to their attention and promised to fix the problem by making arrest data more available to the public.
“We educated students and some of the police employees,” said Julin. “There was definitely a lot of good done in the community.”
Written by Jordan Hanson.
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