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Mpls. decision to release body cam video breaks new ground

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Two of Thurman Blevins family members comfort each other.
Two of Thurman Blevins family members comfort each other during the Committee of the Whole meeting in Minneapolis City Hall on Wednesday.
Lacey Young | MPR News

The decision by Minneapolis to release video footage of a police shooting before the entire investigation concludes is something new to the state, but it could set an example for other cities dealing with police shootings.

The decision by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey was supported by protesters and family members who attended a City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon, but some called on the city to do more to prevent shootings by police.

The death of 31-year-old Thurman Blevins late Saturday afternoon is being investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Investigators say he was shot by police officers after he fled from them in north Minneapolis. Eyewitnesses differ on whether Blevins had a gun. BCA investigators say they recovered a gun at the scene.

The officers involved, Ryan Kelly and Justin Schmidt, are both on standard administrative leave during the BCA investigation. Police said the body cameras of both officers were active during the shooting.

Mayor Jacob Frey talks with a woman attending a vigil.
Mayor Jacob Frey talks with a woman attending a vigil for Thurman Blevins in north Minneapolis, near the place Blevins was shot and killed by police Saturday evening.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Frey announced Tuesday evening that he'd decided to release the video. He said in a statement that Blevins' family needed to be consulted before it was released and that the BCA needed to conclude interviews with key witnesses.  

"Transparency and accountability are of the highest priority for Chief [Medaria] Arradondo and me. Real transparency does not allow for unnecessary delay before information is released," Frey said. "It means full and thoughtful disclosure of information, and an unwavering commitment to fairness and justice."

Some protesters over the weekend, including members of Blevins' family who attended a vigil on Sunday, have called for the body camera footage to be released. All 13 members of the Minneapolis City Council also released a statement urging the BCA to release body camera footage and other evidence.

Protesters attended a Minneapolis City Council meeting Wednesday afternoon. Committee of the Whole Chair Andrea Jenkins gave time for members of the public to talk about Blevins' death.

Activist and former Minneapolis NAACP head Nekima Levy-Pounds said the body camera footage should be released immediately without conditions. She said the city hasn't done a good job routing out systematic problems in the Minneapolis police.  

"The culture has not changed. We have officers continuing to engage in abusive conduct," Levy-Pounds said. "You see their records, they're not disciplined, including the officers who were involved in the shooting death of Thurman Blevins."

Nekima Levy-Pounds makes a statement to the Committee of the Whole.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network, makes a statement to the Committee of the Whole at Minneapolis City Hall.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Other members of the public who spoke expressed skepticism about the BCA investigation and the Police Department's account of what led to the shooting.

Vanessa Anderson, who identified herself as the mother of Blevins' oldest two children, said her children and Blevins' other child are "distraught" at his death.

"It's sad that my kids and I have actually went to these protests, for all these others that have been before, or the injustice before, now they get to do it for their own dad," Anderson said. "I never would have thought that we'd ever have went to one of those for their own dad."

Anderson said the Police Department needed to address how people are trained and to teach them ways to de-escalate situations.

King Demetrius Pendleton shows off his shirt
King Demetrius Pendleton shows his shirt which reads "It's all fun and games until the cops show up" during the Committee of the Whole meeting at Minneapolis City Hall.
Lacey Young | MPR News

Most City Council members expressed support for the family and urged prompt release of the footage. Some also said they would consider changing the city charter to give the council more oversight over the police department, which is now mostly controlled by the mayor.

Frey also attended the council meeting to hear the public comments. After people in the crowd urged him to make a statement, he offered his condolences to Blevins' family and thanked other members of the public for their input.

"Although the words are often uncomfortable to hear, I think it's good for me to hear them," Frey said. "I think leaning into that discomfort is something that I'm trying to do. I haven't always been successful but I'm trying."

Frey told the crowd that it's important to him to release information in the case, including the body camera footage, as soon as possible.

"At a time when there's so much distrust between communities and the police that are charged with protecting and serving them, I do think that it's important that the body camera footage be released," Frey said.

Minneapolis sets example for the state

Typically in Minnesota, investigators haven't released much information or video footage before an investigation concluded, said Metropolitan State University professor James Densley.

"Once it's out in the public domain you can't reel it back," he said. "Any leverage you might have from the footage, any of the fact-finding, any of the investigation that's going on, any advantage that that presents would be lost."  

State investigators just last week released body camera videos of Marcus Fischer, who was shot by officers after stabbing himself in a police interview room six months ago.

There's a chance that releasing video footage could keep eyewitnesses from coming forward or change what they remember about an incident, Densley said. But releasing video could also improve the police department's relationship with the community.

"Delays like this, even though they might be perfectly legal, rational — they make a lot of sense from an investigative standpoint. From a community standpoint, there's then these suspicions," Densley said. "That erodes away at some of that trust."

Under Minnesota law, data involved in active criminal investigations is usually not public. But Matt Ehling, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, said there is a provision that allows governmental bodies to release investigative information.

"If the release of investigative data while there's an ongoing investigation would ... benefit the public in some way, or in particular would dispel widespread rumor or unrest, then you can release it," Ehling said.  

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office declined to comment on Frey's decision to release the footage. A statement from the BCA Wednesday reaffirmed that the agency would conduct a "fair, impartial, and thorough investigation of the incident." A spokesperson for the agency said it would release all public records after the case was closed, as in other investigations.