Hennepin sheriff's 2-year stonewall to keep its surveillance technology a secret

Independent reporter Tony Webster has been after Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek's emails for two years. Despite being public records, the county has thus far refused.

Independent reporter Tony Webster has been after Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek's emails for two years. Despite being public records, the county has thus far refused. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Independent reporter Tony Webster makes a lot of data requests in his line of work as a government watchdog.

In 2015, he was inspired by research on the development of police surveillance technologies to do some digging on what sorts of game-changing gadgets Minnesota cops might have adopted.

Webster submitted letters to a variety of agencies, requesting public information under the state Government Data Practices Act. He found out from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety that the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office had mobile scanners that recorded fingerprints, so he zeroed in, asking the Sheriff’s Office for emails related to their use of identification technologies.

The Sheriff’s Office dragged its feet for months. Webster was told that his request to search for a list of about 20 keywords was too large, and that it would take an unreasonable 15 months of around-the-clock server time to trawl through millions of employee emails. Webster offered to simplify his request. Still, he was stonewalled.

Where other cash-strapped reporters might have had their hands tied at this point, Webster got some pro-bono attorneys and sued the county.

“I just thought that defies common sense,” he says. “Both sides agree this data is public. If it’s public, why is there no way I can ask to see it?”

In the spring of 2016, Judge Jim Mortenson agreed with Webster, ruling that the Sheriff’s Office violated the Data Practices Act.

Contrary to the Sheriff’'s stated excuse for withholding data, the judge wrote, “The county does have the ability to perform multi-mailbox searches. It is estimated that it will take approximately 18 hours to complete.”

Webster began to receive some emails. The Sheriff’s Office released them in weekly batches. They confirmed that since 2013, the department has been using facial recognition technology that can create detailed 3-D models of inmates’ features and enter them into a database that could eventually be matched against public and private surveillance security camera footage.

He published what he found on his website last summer.

Soon, the data release stopped. The Hennepin County Attorney appealed on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office, again arguing that Webster’s request was improperly arduous. A number of media and watchdog organizations, including the Star Tribune, MinnPost, MPR, and the American Civil Liberties Union, filed legal briefs in support.

On April 10, the Court of Appeals also sided with Webster, affirming that the Sheriff’s Office did indeed violate the Data Practices Act. In response, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a news release that the county was considering appealing the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Webster believed he may finally get the full story behind Hennepin County’s surveillance technology. He nudged the Sheriff’s Office to release the emails he wanted had already been gathered and set aside.

Weeks went by. There was no response.

Certain that the county attorney was preparing to appeal at the very end of the month-long window for doing so, Webster preemptively filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Friday. In his appeal, he asks the court to determine once and for all whether the Sheriff’s Office impeded his right to public information. Hennepin County has agreed to that review.

"We appreciate the role people like Tony Webster play in a democracy. These citizens demand openness in their government so that the people can determine if they like what their elected officials are doing in their name," County Attorney Freeman said in a statement Monday.

"However, producing that information can be burdensome. There also are real questions, with today’s new computer technologies, over what constitutes an overly broad or burdensome search request."

If the Supreme Court accepts the case, it might deliver a final order in December or next January, bringing Webster’s long fight for a single data request into its third year.

“They haven’t given me a single email from Sheriff’s [Rich] Stanek’s email box in all this time,” he says. “At this point I feel very frustrated. If I or any other member of the public is interested in a specific topic, you really have no way to access that … Their goal, my personal take, is that they’re just trying to produce as little as possible and hope I’ll get exhausted and stop.”