The video release of North Dakota investigators questioning Attorney General Ravnsborg by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety is a first of its kind in South Dakota. While there has often been talk of transparency in state government, the reality is, getting records from government agencies, especially law enforcement, can be virtually impossible.
It’s safe to say that every journalist in the state was surprised by the release of hours of video of Ravnsborg being questioned by investigators in the fatal crash that killed Joe Boever. It allowed a glimpse behind the curtain of secrecy that typically surrounds investigations in South Dakota.
I was one of the journalists who was a member of a 2016 Open Government Task Force, which tried to make more law enforcement records public in the 2017 legislative session.
The 2016 Open Government Task Force succeeded in convincing lawmakers to allow booking photos be made public. At the time, there was also an effort to open up police incident reports to the public.
“We need to be careful of those that are innocent out there, and protect them and at the same time, release information to the public that could be of public interest,” Lt. Paul Gerken of the South Dakota Highway Patrol said in Oct. of 2016. Gerken has since retired from the SD Highway Patrol
However, that effort to open police reports failed. South Dakota Newspaper Association Executive Director, Dave Bordewyk, was part of the open government task force.
“I’ve heard from countless editors and reporters over the years who have said, how can we go about getting access to these types of records, whether it be an interrogation video or some type of report that law enforcement has made and again and again frustrated, because the law is not on the side in terms of access to these records and just continually denied.”Dave Bordewyk, South Dakota Newspaper Association
KELOLAND Investigates has requested video evidence numerous times over the years, only to be denied.
In February of 2018, we asked for video of an altercation from the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, but were denied citing two sections of South Dakota law that protect law enforcement records from being made public.
In 2016, KELOLAND Investigates asked then-Minnehaha County State’s Attorney for video of two abuse incidents involving former LifeScape employees, on the condition we would blur out the victim’s face.
McGowan responded saying: “We are not permitted to release any evidence in a criminal case – other than through discovery to the defendant/defense attorney.”
In 2016, we asked then Attorney General Marty Jackley for video of an assault by an inmate in the South Dakota State Prison of Correctional Officer Zane Mathis. Jackley responded that no video was shown in court, so therefore it wasn’t considered public record.
Kennecke: Do you believe this sets a precedent for journalists and the public to see more of these kinds of videos in future cases?
Bordewyk: Until the open records law we have in South Dakota is amended; changed, to deal with some of these issues, this is where we are at. I think this was a very unique circumstance we saw with the release of these videos, It certainly was extraordinary but I don’t think we’re going to see much of it again unless the law changes.
The South Dakota Department of Public Safety issued KELOLAND Investigates the following statement about the videos’ release:
“The decision to release these videos was because the Attorney General is the state’s highest ranking law-enforcement official and he had been involved in a pedestrian-vehicle fatal crash. The Department of Public Safety was directed by the Governor’s Office to release this information as part of her commitment to be transparent in this case.”Tony Mangan, SD Dept. Of Public Safety Spokesperson