Arrest data proves elusive for student reporters
by Abel Gustafson
Once a day, Mark Stodghill crosses the street and descends a flight of stairs to the front desk of the Duluth Police Department. He pages through a hefty clipboard full of the summaries of all the recent arrests they have made. Stodghill asks for copies of the arrests that he deems newsworthy, and he returns to his desk at the Duluth News Tribune to write crime news for the next morning’s paper.
My classmates and I in the Journalism program at the University of Minnesota Duluth have been studying the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which mandates that specific data from every arrest made by a Minnesota law enforcement agency must be open to any member of the public and be “available at all times�? at that agency.
This public arrest data is what is on the clipboard at the Duluth Police Department front desk.
Out of curiosity, our class journalism class set out to determine just how accessible this same information is at other agencies, optimistic that we would find convenience and accessibility like that of the Duluth Police Department. We couldn't have been more wrong.
Students went in small groups to law enforcement agencies, ranging from Eagan to International Falls, asking to see the public arrest data from the arrests made in the previous few days. Local agencies included the State Patrol, the St. Louis County Sheriff, the UMD Police, and the police departments in Hermantown, Proctor, Superior, and Duluth.
Across the board, they were met with confusion, miscommunication, and everything else short of chaos.
A few students had to educate the desk clerks about the very existence of the law, and many were compelled to resort to writing formal Freedom of Information letters. One group had to wait two weeks for the information, and one student had to pay a copying charge of five dollars for a single printed page.
From the twisting jungle of responses we encountered, one reason for the difficulties stands clear: no one ever asks to see who has been arrested at these other agencies.
Albeit often improperly sensationalized, "watchdog journalism" grows out of the foundational American principle of checks and balances.
The reason we have laws that protect public information is to preserve our basic rights and liberties. These laws ensure that our country’s law enforcement agencies do not make arrests without revealing who they arrested and why.
The students purposefully asked to personally see a whole list of arrests so that they could look through all the arrests and be able to select an interesting arrest at their own discretion. The whole idea of freedom of public information is deflated if the agency chooses which arrests the media gets to see.
Granted, cover-up scandals worthy of Hollywood are nigh non-existent. But what about simple local crime news? Who decides whether or not to notify the local newspaper with a press release if a city official is arrested?
Mark Stodghill said "A lot of (reporters) rely on getting emails from the agencies when something happens. But I feel like we still got to make that check anyway. It only takes five minutes to swing by and look."
At the Duluth Police Department, they expect Mark Stodghill to come every day, so they know that this public information will be requested of them.
Wade Petrich, editor of the Hermantown Star weekly paper, said "If you develop a personal relationship, (the agencies) are much more inclined to help you."
At the Duluth division of the State Patrol, no one checks on the arrests they have made. Capt. Steve Stromback said "I have never had this request before."
But the task of relaying crime stories to the public becomes cumbersome when the organization of the data does not allow convenient access.
Unlike the Duluth Police Department, most agencies have the information stored on a computer in a way that allows for convenient access to data for any one specific arrest, but not to a list of the arrests.
According to Capt. Stromback, another roadblock is that producing such a list of the arrests “is a matter of going through our computer and paper records to separate public and private data.�?
Ironically, having public arrest data on a simple clipboard of pen-and-paper forms makes it more accessible than using cutting edge technology.
Future requests for information may be serviced with more convenience. Some agencies expressed a desire to better accommodate these types of public information requests from journalists and the public.
Capt. Stromback said: "I welcome inquiries from the media. If that is what they want to do, we will work in a timely fashion to facilitate their request."
Changes are in the works at the Hermantown Police Department, too, according to the department's Jessica Trevanius.
"We're going to make some things a little more streamlined," she said.