Minnesota Troopers Deleted Texts and Emails After Floyd Protests, Major Testifies

Minnesota State Patrol troopers deleted text messages and emails shortly after responding to protests that erupted over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, according to a major who testified in federal court in July.

The testimony was included in court documents that were released on Friday as part of a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota filed last year on behalf of journalists who said they had been assaulted by law enforcement officers while covering the protests.

“The purge was neither accidental, automated nor routine,” lawyers with the A.C.L.U. said in a court memo on Friday, adding that no one had been able to review the deleted communications to see if they might have been relevant to the case.

“The absence of both contemporaneous communications and documentation makes it nearly impossible to track the State Patrol’s behavior, apparently by design,” the memo added.

During a hearing on July 28, Maj. Joseph J. Dwyer testified that he and other state troopers deleted their emails and texts shortly after responding to the unrest, and that he believed that “a vast majority” of troopers had done so.

Kevin C. Riach, a lawyer working with the A.C.L.U. on the case, questioned Major Dwyer during the hearing. “There was a purge of records at the State Patrol immediately after the George Floyd protests,” he said. “Is that correct?”

“There was a purge of emails and text messages, correct,” Major Dwyer responded, according to the transcript, which was reported by KSTP of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

He added that while the purge had not been specifically ordered by supervisors, it was a normal, recommended practice for state troopers to delete their texts and emails periodically.

In an interview on Monday, Mr. Riach said he had been suspicious about deleted communications before he had the opportunity to question Major Dwyer in July. “We were shocked at the apparent extent of the destruction,” he said, adding, “We still have a lot of questions.”

In his testimony, Major Dwyer recalled his agency’s response to the protests that erupted in Minneapolis after Mr. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed in police custody in May 2020 — the demonstrations quickly spread across the United States — and to the protests in Brooklyn Center, Minn., after the death of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in April.

Major Dwyer described chaotic environments in which, he said, many people violated curfews and it was often difficult to determine who was working for a news organization.

“Really was an unprecedented event,” he said, “navigating through, like, the night after night after night after night of riotous behavior.”

In response to questions about the deletions of texts and emails, Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said in an email that the State Patrol “follows all state and agency data retention requirements.”

“In addition,” he said, “there is a litigation hold for all data related to this case.”

He added that he could not comment further because of continuing litigation.

Lawyers with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office who are representing state’s public safety officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The lawsuit, which names city and state law enforcement officials as defendants, was filed in Federal District Court in Minnesota in June 2020 on behalf of Jared Goyette, a freelance journalist who has contributed to The Washington Post and The Guardian. Other journalists have since been added as plaintiffs.

“The protests were marked by an extraordinary escalation of unlawful force deliberately targeting reporters,” the lawsuit says.

Across the United States, many journalists reported tense encounters with law enforcement during last year’s demonstrations against racism and police brutality. In one instance, a few days after Mr. Floyd was killed, State Patrol troopers arrested a CNN reporting team live on television in Minneapolis, an extraordinary interference with freedom of the press in the United States that prompted denunciations from news media groups, First Amendment advocates and prominent journalists.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, a Democrat, has said that assaults on journalists covering the protests were “chilling,” and he has called on law enforcement officers “to make changes that will help ensure journalists do not face barriers to doing their jobs.”

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