We Need to Take Away Law Enforcement’s Ability to Withhold Video From the Public


Yesterday Fargo Forum reporter Kim Hyatt published a story about Abraham Nyei, a 26-year-old Fargo man who says he suffered injury to his person and his property during his recent arrest by the Fargo Police Department.

Nyei’s version of events isn’t terribly flattering for the cops. Initially the Fargo police declined to release video they have of the incident, but last night they reversed course and released an edited copy of the video complete with their own commentary on what happened.

They posted it on social media:

“Earlier this afternoon, a local media outlet published a story regarding an incident that occurred yesterday, and we’re looking to clear up some misinformation that is in that article or behind the incident,” police spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker says in the video.

I don’t have any reason to believe the Fargo cops edited this video in any nefarious way, but as a staunch advocate for government transparency I’m more than a little troubled over how the video is released.

North Dakota has very strong open records laws, with a presumption that all government records are open to public inspection unless there is a specific statute exempting them. Law enforcement has a very broad exemption, which they use very often, exempting any information related to an on-going criminal investigation from open records requests.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]What the Fargo PD has done is undermine the public’s trust in them.[/mks_pullquote]

That’s why the Fargo Police Department was able to turn down requests for the full, unedited video they have of this incident. Yet, they’ve gone ahead and released edited video with commentary to the public.

This seems self-serving, and undermines the point of transparency laws. They exist to help engender trust in the government, but are we to be inspired to trust the police when they eschew records requests for a complete version of this video in favor of their own, edited version which is appended to a their-side-of-the-story explanation of events?

This isn’t about which side – Nyei of the cops – is right in this particular instance. It’s about whether or not the cops can use open records laws exemptions to selectively tell the public what they want the public to hear.

I don’t think they should be able to do that. Either this video is ok for public consumption, in which case the cops should release the whole unedited version, or it is not in which case the cops should keep it to themselves.

What the Fargo PD has done is undermine the public’s trust in them.

I’m not sure why all video taken by police cameras – body cams, dash cams, etc. – shouldn’t be immediately available to the public even if they are part of an on-going investigation. I’d be fine with allowing some redaction to reasonably protect privacy (for instance, we don’t need to watch a cop use the restroom if they accidentally leave their body cam on), but outside of that the public should get to see what their public servants are doing.

Particularly the public servants with the authority to use force.

Kudos to Hyatt, by the way. Her reporting is an example for how you handle reticence from government officials to releasing information. You report the facts you have, and if they get embarrassed enough they’ll start to talk.