Last fall, a police standoff with an armed and dangerous man, a convicted felon, ended with the man's suicide by his own shotgun. That's the official version of events.
And that's how it will have to stay. Although a helicopter camera captured the final moments of Richard Blondeau's life, that footage has been deemed "clearly offensive to common sensibilities," and not subject to the state open records law.
In other words, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension says the footage of Blondeau's death is too graphic for the public to see.
The Fargo Forum had requested the videotape taken by a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter monitoring the pursuit, and eventual gunfight, between Blondeau and three Fergus Falls police officers.
The BCA granted that request last week, but redacted the crucial 30-second piece of the tape, when, police say, Blondeau was shot twice in the leg, and turned the shotgun on himself. A letter from the general counsel for the Department of Public Safety said the agency was not compelled to make public a video that shows "the death of an individual."
Well, yes. That's the part the Forum wanted to see.
Instead, it saw a night-vision image of Blondeau, who'd been accused of shooting at his estranged wife's car, walking through farmland and carrying a gun. At the moment Blondeau seems to point his gun, the video blacks out with the message "Edited Graphic Content" on the screen. Audio continues playing, and officers can be heard yelling, "Shots fired!" and "He just went down."
The three officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing, both by internal police review and by investigation of the Otter Tail County prosecutor. The prosecutor said the cops' version of events was verified by other law enforcement on the scene — and by the videotape.
First Amendment lawyer Mark Anfinson told the Forum that the state law gives police forces total discretion to determine if footage is "offensive to common sensibilities," and pointed out that some departments have invoked the same passage to deny access to police body camera footage. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester, and Duluth have all approved the use of the cameras.
After a previous effort stalled, the Minnesota Legislature is considering passage of a statewide law to govern how police can deploy body cameras, and what footage would be made public. The Associated Press reports that bills to set those boundaries have stalled.
Two competing House of Representatives bills, both authored by Republicans, were pulled from the agenda for a committee hearing scheduled for today, and committee chair Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said House Republicans were at a "stalemate." Scott wants a provision that would force cops to ask permission to begin filming inside a private home; other legislators think that's unnecessary.
In the Senate, Democrats have backed a bill that would make video private unless the subject of the film obtains and releases it, with exceptions for cases where an officer uses a weapon or sufficient force resulting in "substantial injury." It's unclear how that law, should it be passed, would coincide — or conflict — with the open records law's standard of not releasing "offensive" footage.