MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The families of five Minnesota men who were killed by police officers announced a lawsuit Thursday to force the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to release its investigative files on their deaths, saying the state agency has failed to comply with Minnesota's open records law.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Ramsey County District Court in St. Paul, says once the investigation into a deadly force incident is completed and a prosecutor decides not to charge the officers, the data legally should be turned over to the families of the deceased within 10 days of them requesting it.
Prosecutors in all five cases cleared the officers of wrongdoing. But the lawsuit says the BCA still hasn't met its legal obligations to the families. An agency spokesperson said the BCA releases information to families as quickly as it can.
Not only would getting the files help provide some closure, but the long delays make it hard for families to file wrongful death lawsuits within the state's three-year statute of limitations, Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said.
The plaintiffs include the family of Tekele Sundberg, who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed by Minneapolis police snipers July 14, 2022, after an overnight standoff in which he allegedly fired shots. His death stoked activists' distrust of police in the city where George Floyd was killed by an officer in 2020. His mother, Cindy Sundberg, told reporters that Thursday would have been his 22nd birthday.
“He should be here celebrating. We should be asking him what he wants for his birthday dinner. It's been 16 months. We still have not seen the details, and seen all the information, despite trying to get the information," Sundberg said. “We grieve the loss of our son. It’s unbearable.”
The family of Zachary Shogren said police knew their son, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, was suffering from PTSD and schizophrenia when task force officers shot and killed him in Duluth after he ran toward them with a knife on Feb. 24, 2023. His father, Jim Shogren, said they were trying to get their son the help he needed, but he was shot within a minute after the confrontation began.
“The police knew all this information. They knew of his mental illness," said his mother, Jenny Shogren. “And it ended so fast for Zach. And we're just devastated. We've cried a million tears for our son. He served his country for nine years. He was supposed to be brought to the hospital to get help, not to be pronounced dead.”
The BCA said it's committed to informing families and the public as quickly as possible while protecting data that it can't release under state law.
“We understand that families who have experienced these tragic losses would want all of the information that they can have as soon as possible, BCA spokesperson Jill Oliveira said in a statement. ”Once a case is closed, the BCA must review every report, image, audio and video in the casefile to ensure that information that isn’t public is removed as required under Minnesota law. This requires review of dash camera, body-worn camera, and surveillance video; all other images and audio of the incident; and voluminous reports."
The lawsuit also names the families of Dolal Idd, who was killed by Minneapolis police at a gas station Dec. 20, 2020, after they said he fired at them during a gun purchase sting. Okwan Sims, who was shot by Stillwater police officers investigating a report of shots fired at an apartment complex March 4, 2023; and Brent Alsleben, who was killed by Hutchinson police officers Dec. 15, 2022.
The statute of limitations for Idd's family to file a wrongful death lawsuit expires at the end of next month, said Paul Bosman, an attorney for the families. He said the case files can run from 1,500 to 2,500 pages, so families and their lawyers need time to review them before time runs out, but they keep getting stonewalled on their requests.
“We've heard all sorts of explanations about how they're just too much work to do. They apparently hired several more attorneys to do review in the last year, they've had to train those people. That is not our concern. We have families who are entitled to this data.”
Gross said the open records law requires government agencies to be transparent with their data.