Back in August, the Timberjay filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the National Park Service, seeking information on an incident that led to the alleged tasing of a local businessperson at Voyageurs National Park.
Tasing is a serious use of force and given that the incident may have taken place on the water, it was potentially a life-threatening use of force. Given the widespread concerns about over-zealous law enforcement at the park in the past year and a half, the public has a clear interest in understanding what led to the alleged incident. We say alleged because at this point, no federal officials have been willing to confirm or deny that the June 25 incident in question involved the use of a taser. To date, it is only unofficial sources who claim the individual in question was tased. It was the Park Service’s lack of transparency that prompted our FOIA request.
Yet, despite months since the filing of our request, the Timberjay has received exactly nothing from the Park Service. No information. No answered questions. Nothing. It’s time for Washington to take notice of the Park Service’s failure.
We recognize that FOIA does, in some cases, limit the release of law enforcement data. That’s true of most state laws prescribing access to government information as well. But these laws don’t give law enforcement a free pass to ignore the public’s requests for information. Some basic information is always supposed to be made available and officials always have some discretion about the release of even law enforcement information. But, so far, the Park Service and federal law enforcement have simply circled the wagons.
The U.S. Attorney has filed petty charges in the case, against the local business owner, Justin Ebel, and as of late December those charges had been dismissed. None of the charges against Mr. Ebel appeared to justify a tasing even if he had been guilty of the infractions.
The actions of the Park Service and the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota are unusual and unacceptable. They differ markedly from other cases, including another tasing incident at a New Mexico national park in 2020, when the Park Service responded in a far more transparent manner when an individual was tased by a park ranger after straying off a marked trail and initially resisted providing identification. Within days of the incident, which was video recorded by a private individual and posted online, prompted park officials there to release nearly 15 minutes of body camera footage and to launch an investigation into the actions of the ranger.
Here in Minnesota, we can’t even get the Park Service to confirm whether any body camera footage of the incident exists, much less release it to the public as was done in New Mexico. Will the Park Service critically investigate the decision of law enforcement officers at Voyageurs to resort to the use of a taser? Who knows? They’re not talking.
Let’s be clear. Because of the actions of the Park Service at Voyageurs, we don’t know all the specifics of this case. It is possible, although it seems unlikely, that there are mitigations that could have made the tasing justified. Yet, if so, why would the Park Service and U.S. Attorney be so reluctant to provide details of the case? It looks an awful lot like a cover-up of law enforcement excess.
It’s been a concern in more than the Ebel case. As we reported late last summer, there is increasing concern among park users and business owners who provide services to park users, that the park law enforcement has become overly aggressive since the arrival of Josh Wentz as the park’s chief law enforcement officer. The alleged tasing of Justin Ebel, who operates a houseboat service in the park is just the most egregious example.
If the Park Service won’t take the matter seriously, it’s time for higher level officials to do so. Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith could play a role in pushing for an investigation of the incident. Rep. Pete Stauber could do the same. This is federal property, which is why state rules on the release of information don’t apply. If anything’s going to change, it’s going to take pressure from officials in Washington to make it happen. Let’s demand that it does.