City and police to collaborate on public data

In an effort to increase public accessibility, Minneapolis police and the city clerk’s office will work together on processing public data requests.

At a June 15 meeting, the City Council directed the clerk’s office and Minneapolis Police Department staff to create a single point of access and collaborate on data requests procedures, a move that will “more closely integrate” the city’s public records system, said Assistant City Clerk Christian Rummelhoff.

Under the previous system, there was a split between the police and the city as a whole. To access data, people had to go to the police and the clerk’s office separately, according to Rummelhoff.

The change, expected to go into place by the end of the summer, allows residents to request data — whether from the police or other city departments — from one place.

Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) said increased collaboration will allow “faster and easier access to public data for requesters.”

Police spokesperson Scott Seroka said in an email, “We fully support the direction and always look to improve our data request process.”

Tony Webster, a public records researcher and data activist, said he believes the direction will help simplify the city’s complex data system.

“Right now, it’s really confusing for the public as to where to go to find information,” he said. “It can be a little frustrating.”

Minneapolis is required by state law to process data requests “in an appropriate and prompt manner” and ensure that public records are “easily accessible for convenient use.” However, the city has leeway to decide how to best manage that system.

MPD maintains its own public records staff separate from the clerk’s office, the city’s official record-keepers, in part because it receives a large number of requests, Rummelhoff said.

Last year, the clerk’s office received 1,108 public data requests, according to city data. In the same time, police processed more than 200,000 requests, according to Mary Zenzen, police records information supervisor.

In recent years, the city has seen a significant increase in public data requests. Requests to the clerk’s office rose 173 percent in 2017 from 2016. MPD experienced an increase of 105 percent.

Rummelhoff said there are now more complicated and large-scale requests, such as multiple pieces of data from different city departments and phone transcripts spread over multiple years.

“We started to see requests look for data spread across the city and involve more of a coordinated response,” Rummelhoff said.

The influx of requests has led to increase collaboration between the clerk’s office and police in recent years.

Even after the direction, there will still be some differences between data procedures in the police and the clerk’s office, including how the two departments track requests and their review and redaction process. But Rummelhoff said the clerk’s office and police will continue to standardize processes in the coming year.

“We been moving closer together over time, but I think this directive gives us the chance to move even closer” said Rummelhoff.

This is welcome news for some who see discrepancies between the clerk’s office and MPD when it comes to handling data requests.

“Things are slower with the police department and things are a lot less transparent,” Webster said.

In 2017, it took the clerk’s office an average of 36 days to process requests, according to Rummelhoff. Over half of the requests were processed in 10 days or less. MPD does not keep statistics on the average number of days to process a request, according to Zenzen.

Palmisano said she heard from constituents and journalists that the previous police administration would “stonewall” even simple data requests. She said after the 2017 fatal shooting ofJustine Damond, also known as Justine Ruszczyk, which happened in her ward, there was an “inability for police to give information.”

These high-profile police incidents, including the fatal officer-involved shooting of Jamar Clark in 2015, Palmisano said, underscore the need for better police transparency and data accessibility. The direction for increased collaboration is part of these ongoing efforts, she said.

Webster thinks the direction is a good thing for the city.

“I see it as a really positive step towards transparency and accountability,” he said.