By Mike Kaszuba
In the fall of 2016, three Minnesota counties volunteered to send sheriff’s deputies to North Dakota to provide police support as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project drew national attention.
In early December of that year, Saint Paul-based non-profit Public Record Media asked the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office for internal correspondence regarding its deployment of 29 deputies (the state’s largest contingent) at a cost of nearly $349,000. PRM requested all correspondence – and, specifically, internal department e-mails – for the entire month of November 2016, a time that included the immediate aftermath of the county’s deployment. But instead of producing documents that might have provided insight into Hennepin County’s decision-making process, the sheriff’s office let more than a year lapse before turning over data. During that time, it held that state approval was needed to produce the documents.
The office maintained that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety – and not the county — was obligated to produce the internal correspondence from the sheriff’s department because the state agency was organizing Minnesota’s response to North Dakota’s request for police assistance.
However, state officials later stated that the sheriff’s office was responsible for producing its own internal documents. “We do not have [sheriff’s office] ‘internal emails,’ “ Bruce Gordon, a state Department of Public Safety spokesperson, wrote in an August 2017 e-mail message to PRM. “They would need to respond to your request for that data.”
Five months later — in January of 2018 — Hennepin County stated that it considered the data request closed. In the end, the sheriff’s office produced 23 pages of documents that mainly consisted of press releases, e-mail exchanges with the media, and a letter the sheriff sent to legislators regarding the deployment.
Of the 23 pages, five consisted of previously-issued press releases, three consisted of a letter from the sheriff to legislators, and seven pages consisted of e-mail exchanges with members of the media. Three more pages included the agreement between Hennepin County and the state. The agreement consisted of an authorization form and a one-page deployment checklist that included a reminder to the county’s deputies that “you are under the operational control of the requesting agency. You work in support of the response. You do not lead the response unless directed to do so.”
Documents show correspondence with media, legislators
One of the media exchanges involved an NBC-TV producer who asked in November of 2016 whether deputies would continue to be sent to North Dakota, and whether some deputies had allegedly “turned in their badges” in protest of the deployment. In an e-mail, a sheriff’s office spokesman told NBC that no deputies had turned in their badges. Other correspondence showed that the spokesman also asked a state official whether his response to NBC should be “based on the public statements we’ve already made.” The state official, Joe Neuberger of the state Department of Public Safety, suggested a short, two-sentence statement to the television network.
“Here’s our version” of what to say, Neuberger wrote in response. “Twenty-nine Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies were deployed to Morton County, North Dakota, along with six deputies from Anoka and five deputies from Washington Counties, as part of an Emergency Assistance Management Compact between the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. The Hennepin County deputies were deployed from Oct. 23 through Nov. 1, 2016.”
The data given to PRM also included an October 2016 letter that Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek sent to legislators who were critical of Hennepin County’s voluntary deployment. “This was not a political, but an operational response to a request for assistance,” the sheriff wrote. “Contrary to the claims in your letter, we have not picked a side, our mission is to assist in maintaining public safety, preserving the peace, and protecting the constitutional rights of protestors.”
No e-mails related to internal discussions about deployment
In the end, the sheriff’s office did not produce any correspondence in which staff discussed the deployment amongst themselves.
Sheriff’s office spokesperson Michael Sheehan informed PRM on January 8, 2018 that “your [request] was re-opened in mid-September once you notified us that the State had not provided you with internal e-mails, and they referred you back to [us] … At this point, [the sheriff’s office] does consider this data request fulfilled,” Sheehan wrote.
PRM’s initial data request came on December 3, 2016. The request – filed under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act – asked for “all correspondence, including e-mails and texts, from Sheriff Rich Stanek and sheriff’s office staff members” regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline deployment between the dates of November 1, 2016 and November 30, 2016.
PRM’s request came shortly after the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office instituted a policy change regarding the retention of its e-mails. The office had announced that beginning on September 1, 2016, it would delete e-mails after 30 days, unless the messages were required for “a legitimate law enforcement/business purpose.” PRM’s data request was written and submitted in order to comply with the time table of the new policy.
Chronology of sheriff’s office response
December 20, 2016 – Seventeen days after PRM’s initial request, sheriff’s office spokesperson Carrie Hill tells PRM that “any requests regarding correspondence or emails relating to the [deployment] must also be approved by the Minnesota [Division] of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.” The state Department of Public Safety oversees the state’s division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
February 17, 2017 – The state Department of Public Safety (DPS) sends PRM 30 pages of documents – some of them heavily redacted – that consist of the formal agreements to deploy deputies from Minnesota to the North Dakota protests. The response includes no sheriff’s office e-mails.
March 29, 2017 – PRM contests the withholding by DPS of cost information, personnel information, and some equipment information related to the deployment. On April 28, DPS removes redactions related to certain cost information, but continues to withhold other information.
March 31, 2017 – In response to an inquiry from PRM, the sheriff’s office reiterates that all data requests related to the Dakota Access Pipeline deployment “are being staffed through the state. [We] are tracking the requests that have been placed and/or responded to, but I’d need to refer you to the state for a specific answer on where your request stands.”
March 31, 2017 – PRM informs DPS that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) is referring PRM’s request for the sheriff’s office’s own internal e-mails to the state agency.
April 21, 2017 – The sheriff’s office informs PRM that PRM’s request for HCSO’s internal emails had been officially referred to the state.
August 23, 2017 – Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for DPS, informs PRM that “we do not have [sheriff’s office] ‘internal emails.’ They would need to respond to your request for that data.”
August 25, 2017 – PRM informs the sheriff’s office of the state’s response. “I will need to pull the thread to see what’s up,” Michael Sheehan, HCSO spokesman, writes in an e-mail to PRM. “Were there any internal [emails] in the response provided by the state?”
August 25, 2017 – The state Department of Public Safety tells PRM that it does not necessarily view the situation as confusing. “I’m not sure if there is confusion,” Gordon writes via e-mail to PRM. “We don’t have their data.”
September 5, 2017 – The sheriff’s office says it is “coordinating” with state officials regarding PRM’s request. “We have been coordinating with them to see if there was a disconnect in what we provided them [versus] what was provided you,” Sheehan, the sheriff’s office spokesman writes.
September 26, 2017 – The sheriff’s office updates PRM on the its request. “Theoretically, it should not take long, and I will ensure that it is known you have been asking since last December,” Sheehan writes via e-mail.
November 20, 2017 – PRM sends another reminder to the sheriff’s office. “This all relates to a data request that is now nearly a year old, and relates to the sheriff’s office sending deputies to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests,” PRM writes by e-mail. “We asked for all sheriff’s office correspondence/e-mails for the month of November 2016 related to deploying deputies to North Dakota.”
December 11, 2017 – The sheriff’s office sends PRM a response, which consisted of 23 pages. “Attached is the response from your recent [data request] to the Sheriff’s Office,” Sheehan’s response reads.
December 14, 2017 – PRM responds to HCSO regarding its data release. “Is this all of the correspondence, including e-mails, for the month of November 2016[?]” PRM asks. “There seems to be just a few e-mails/correspondence, and what there is involves mainly [already public] press releases and answers to routine media inquiries.”
January 8, 2018 – The sheriff’s office replies to PRM’s inquiry: “As mentioned previously, [we were] obligated to refer all information requests directly or indirectly related to the [deployment to the state]. A copy of the contract between” the state and the sheriff’s office is enclosed.
“Your [request] was re-opened in mid-September once you notified us that the State had not provided you with internal emails, and they referred you back to [us],” Sheehan wrote. “The response to your [request] was fulfilled and sent to you on Dec. 11, 2017.
“At this point, [the sheriff’s office] does consider this data request fulfilled,” Sheehan’s message reads.