Families of five Minnesota men killed by law enforcement allege in a lawsuit filed this week that the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension has not given them full investigation data, despite the cases being closed.
Dolal Idd, Zachary Shogren, Okwan Sims, Tekle Sundberg and Brent Alsleben’s families held a news conference Thursday at the Ramsey County Courthouse to announce the lawsuit against the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the BCA.
The lawsuit claims the BCA violated the state’s public records law, known as the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. When a deadly force investigation is done and if a prosecutor decides not to charge the officers, the case file must be made available to families within 10 days of their request, the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, in each of the five cases, requests were made by the parents of the deceased men after no charges were filed against officers. However, the BCA has “failed to comply with the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act in each of these cases, and has unreasonably delayed the release of data to the plaintiffs,” the lawsuit states.
Families have waited several months to more than two years for the BCA to fulfill their data requests, said Michelle Gross, Communities United Against Police Brutality president. The families are represented by the litigation unit of the CUAPB, an all-volunteer organization that was formed in December 2000 in the aftermath of the shooting death of Charles “Abuka” Sanders by Minneapolis police.
Withholding of data threatens the ability of families to seek wrongful death lawsuits because the statute of limitations for such suits is three years, the lawsuit says. In the case of Bayle Gelle, whose son, Dolal Idd, was killed by Minneapolis police, the statute of limitations expires Dec. 30.
“It’s outlandish to me, personally, that these families have waited so long,” Gross said, adding she is not aware of a similar lawsuit ever filed in the state on behalf of families.
The BCA “has made a litany of excuses” for not releasing data to the families, Gross said.
“One of the big ones is ‘we don’t have enough people to do this work,’ even though they were given a very significant amount of money, not in this last legislative session, but in 2022, in which to hire additional people to do this work,” Gross said.
BCA says they must review full file before release
The BCA understands that families “who have experienced these tragic losses would want all of the information that they can have as soon as possible,” said BCA spokeswoman Jill Oliveira said in an emailed statement Thursday.
Once a case is closed, the BCA must review every report, image, audio and video in the file to ensure that information that isn’t public is removed as required under state law, Oliveira said.
“This requires review of dash camera, body-worn camera, and surveillance video; all other images and audio of the incident; and voluminous reports,” she said.
The BCA is “committed to providing information to families and the public as quickly as possible, while ensuring the protection of information that we cannot release under Minnesota law,” Oliveira said.
Ovid Sims speaks at a news conference on Nov. 16, 2023, at the Ramsey County Courthouse, where families of five men killed by police announced they filed a lawsuit on Nov. 15 against the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, alleging the agency has not provided them with the investigatory files in the case, despite the cases being closed. Sims’ son, O’Kwan Rahmier Sims, 21, was fatally shot by two Stillwater police officers in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Stillwater on March 4, 2023. (Nick Ferraro / Pioneer Press)
Dad of man killed in Stillwater waiting for answers
Several family members wore shirts of those killed or held photos of them as they spoke about how they have been affected by their loss and not getting full information from the BCA.
Ovid Sims, father of Okwan Sims, drove from his home in Dallas to be at the courthouse on Thursday. “I just want justice and answers for my son,” he said.
O’Kwan Rahmier Sims, 21, right, was fatally shot by two Stillwater police officers in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Stillwater on March 4, 2023. At left is his father, Ovid Sims. (Courtesy of Ovid Sims)
Sims, 21, was fatally shot March 4 in the parking lot of a Stillwater apartment complex by two Stillwater police officers responding to an “active-shooter” call, authorities said. The BCA said Sims first shot a woman in the knee in his apartment and then fired dozens of shots at officers in the parking lot before being shot three times.
Washington County Attorney Kevin Magnuson announced Aug. 10 in a news release that he was declining to press charges against the involved officers because the “use of force was justified.”
Magnuson said in the release that his decision came after prosecutors reviewed an extensive investigative file from the BCA consisting of more than “2,000 pages of reports, dozens of photographs, and hours of video and audio evidence.”
According to this week’s lawsuit, Ovid Sims and his attorney, Paul Bosman, CUAPB chief counsel, submitted a data request to the BCA through an Aug. 10 email for “all records related to your investigation into the use of deadly force” against Okwan Sims. Five days later, the BCA told Sims in an email that the case was still an active criminal investigation.
Sims met with members of the BCA at their office on Aug 28 to review body-camera footage and other documents from the case file and was told by agents that he could not bring any of the data home with him, the lawsuit says.
“The BCA agents told Mr. Bosman that Mr. Sims’ case file was ‘voluminous’ and required redaction before it could be released,” the lawsuit states. “It has been over two months since the prosecuting authority declined to press charges and since the date of Mr. Sim’s request for data from the BCA.”
Lawsuit asks judge to order files’ release
Hutchinson police shot and killed 34-year-old Alsleben at his apartment in New Auburn on Dec. 15, 2022, while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis, according to the lawsuit. The BCA said Alsleben displayed a knife and swung it at the first responders. A standoff ensued, with McLeod County deputies and Hutchinson police officers also arriving at the scene.
When they tried to take him into custody, he struggled and cut one of the officers. Two McLeod County deputies attempted without success to use their Tasers. Alsleben then stood up, still holding the knife, and three Hutchinson officers fired, fatally striking him.
Last March, after the Sibley County Attorney declined to press charges against the three involved officers, Alsleben’s mother, Tara Sykes, emailed a data request to the BCA for the entire investigatory file into the death of her son, the lawsuit says.
The BCA responded on March 20 that they received the email, adding “please know the case is now closed and your request is in the queue,” the lawsuit states. “Due to the large number of data requests the BCA receives, we cannot give you a timeframe for completion. However, the BCA will be in contact with you once your request is complete.”
The BCA has not released any of the public information related to Alsleben’s case nor given the family a timeline of when the data will be released, the lawsuit says.
To make matters worse, Sykes said Thursday, the BCA has not released her son’s personal belongings, including a class ring. “He had things that are very personal to us, and I still haven’t received those,” she said.
The lawsuit seeks a judge to order DPS to fulfill the family’s data requests and award them attorney fees, other losses and punitive damages.
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