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Families of people killed by police sue BCA

Kent Erdahl

Nov 16, 2023

ST PAUL, Minn. — A group of families who lost loved ones to police officers' deadly force are joining together in a new kind of lawsuit.

They aren't suing the departments or the officers involved, instead, they are suing the state agency that investigated and has since closed, their cases.

The families say they have yet to see the evidence collected by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, despite their cases being closed months ago.

The families and their attorney, argue that the delay is hampering their ability to seek closure and to consider wrongful death lawsuits before their window to file closes.

"We want a full report if the statute of limitations (to file a wrongful death lawsuit) is done in three years, that gives us very little time to do anything about it," said Mark Sundberg, the father of Tekle Sundberg who was shot and killed by two Minneapolis Police snipers following a six-hour standoff in July of 2022.

Within days of Tekle Sundberg's death, MPD released limited body camera video of the incident that led up to the standoff and shooting, but it took the Hennepin County Attorney's Office another six months to determine that no charges would be filed.

In December of 2022, County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office had examined hundreds of hours of body camera footage and other evidence collected as part of the BCA investigation, adding, in part, "...tragic as it is, the officers' use of deadly force was legally authorized under Minnesota law."

But nearly a year after the case was closed, the Sundbergs say they still haven't seen that evidence for themselves.

"Today is actually Tekle's birthday," said Cindy Sundberg, Tekle Sundberg's mother. "He would be 22 years old. He should be here celebrating. It's been 16 months. We still have not seen the details and seen all of the information, despite trying to get the information."

The Sundbergs are now among the five families suing the BCA, alleging that the agency is violating the Minnesota Data Practices Act for not releasing investigatory files from cases that have been closed.

"Once the county attorneys decided not to charge the officers involved that data became public and - at that point - it should be provided to families upon request, the law says, within 10 days," said Paul Bosman, Attorney for Communities United Against Police Brutality.

Jay and Tara Sykes say they've also been waiting for information on the death of their son, Brent Alsleben, who was killed by Hutchinson police in December of 2022.

"Brent was suffering from mental illness and we - at least a dozen times - asked for help from law enforcement, and from others," Jay Sykes said. "Many of the families that I'm standing here with are just looking for the answers, and we can't get those answers, or that closure until the BCA really comes through and fulfills their obligations."

After being asked to respond, a spokesperson with the BCA sent KARE11 a statement on Thursday evening.

"We understand that families who have experienced these tragic losses would want all of the information that they can have as soon as possible.

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 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."

Bosman argues that there is still no excuse for the delay.

"We've heard all sorts of explanations about how there is just too much work to do," Bosman said. "They've 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 that are entitled to this data."

One of the leading experts in the Minnesota Data Practices Act, says the families have a point.

"If you've got some data out there about somebody who is dead, and certain relatives want access to it, you ought to get access," said Don Gemberling, spokesperson for the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, who also spent years helping train law enforcement officer on how to comply with the Data Practices Act.

Although privacy and redaction concerns are often used to explain long delays before public case files are released, Gemberling says the subjects of investigations and a "Representative of the Decedent" are supposed to be given access within 10 days. He says the Data Practices Act makes it clear that the "representative of the decedent" includes a spouse and children, and if there are none, it is the parents of the decedent.

"I was the primary trainer for these people for years," Gemberling said. "I probably trained 40,000 law enforcement personnel and on this particular issue. I would always tell them the same thing. If somebody shows up at your door and says I'm a data subject or, in this case the representative of the decedent, and I want access to the data about this person, you're supposed to give them access within ten days."

Lawyers for these families say some of these delays have stretched beyond 10 weeks and in some cases, 10 months.

"We would certainly, for the families, like the full, unredacted files, but at this point, we'd settle for the public version of the files," Bosman said. "These haven't been released in any of these cases, despite the fact they are overdue."

And in some cases, the families say it's not just data and video footage that are overdue.

"The BCA still has personal belongings, so that is something that I would like," Tara Sykes said. "My son had a class ring, he had a watch, he had bracelets. He had things that were very personal to us and I still haven't receive those."

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