It is at the very least a bad look when a “vast majority” of the State Patrol hurries to delete their emails in the wake of a riot response in which troopers are accused of selectively targeting journalists.
That admission came earlier this summer as the American Civil Liberties Union pursues a civil suit against the state agency and Minneapolis police over their actions during the violence that followed the police murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020.
It is quite possible, of course, that the electronic trail of communications can still be recovered; a user deleting an email does not fully eradicate it from the server. But the mass deletion complicates things and suggests an agency eager to obscure its actions.
It also illustrates Minnesota’s failure to update its Official Records Act, which has not been seriously revised for more than 30 years. A state government that once ran on paper increasingly exchanges information and instruction electronically, through email, texts and other messaging services, which either did not exist or were in their infancy when the statute was written.
A 2007 report commissioned by the Legislature called for lawmakers to “update and revise confusing statutes related to government and official records, documents and data.” That report has been ignored since.
The upshot is that agencies, departments and officials feel free to do as they wish with the record of their decisions. That makes it all too tempting to bury the trail to elude scrutiny.
The State Patrol is required to make and keep records of official activity — including text messages and emails — according to Don Gemberling, spokesman for nonprofit Minnesota Coalition on Government Information. They can only delete them under a schedule approved by a state records retention panel. If there is such a schedule, the patrol has yet to provide one.
The court would do well to order a search of the agency’s servers to recover the deleted emails. More than that, the Legislature should rework the Official Records Act to cover electronic records more thoroughly — and put some teeth into its enforcement.
Ensuring public transparency is essential to public accountability, and accountability is a necessity.