FARGO — Chief David Todd's decision to publicly release squad car video from an ongoing investigation was apparently an unprecedented move for the Fargo Police Department.
Police do not typically release video or other evidence until a case has been closed for fear of undermining an active investigation. But Todd used his discretion in releasing an 11-minute, edited video showing a traffic stop and altercation between 26-year-old Abraham Nyei and three officers that occurred Monday, July 15.
"I do not recall releasing dash cam video like this before a case is closed," Todd said Wednesday in a letter to The Forum explaining his reasoning behind deviating from protocol to post the video Tuesday night on Facebook.
The Forum published a story online Tuesday afternoon and in Wednesday's print edition that included Nyei's version of what happened, along with the police department's version. In the story, Nyei, a black man, accused police of racial profiling and of violating his rights — claims that Todd said he "absolutely disputes."
After reading the story and comments online, Todd said he "knew immediately the negative impact it was going to produce for us on social media."
"Even though the work-day was over, I immediately called in our PIO (public information officer) and our videographer and had them come back to work telling them we needed to respond as quickly as possible before it got beyond recovery," Todd wrote.
"As the chief," he continued, "I will always have to balance transparency with protecting an active investigation in weighing how much I or others in our department can share. When I see something is going to be divisive, destructive, damage our community trust and hurt the credibility of the Fargo Police Department, I feel obligated to shed some light and understanding to the situation."
The Forum submitted a public records request on Monday and again Wednesday for the full, unedited videos from the incident. In response Wednesday, Todd said he has no objection to releasing all the videos. But as of publication time Wednesday evening, The Forum had not received those videos.
The incident began after Nyei allegedly ran a red light less than a half-mile from his home in the 4300 block of Ninth Avenue Circle South. He's pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of fleeing, preventing arrest and marijuana possession in connection with the incident.
The edited video shows Nyei not complying with police orders to exit his car, so officers broke the driver's window and forcibly removed him from the car. Along with the squad car footage, police spokeswoman Jessica Schindeldecker and Deputy Chief Ross Renner offer commentary on what's happening in the video.
Nyei told The Forum his nose was broken during the incident. And police said three officers involved suffered minor injuries.
Asked whether the officers' use of force was appropriate in this case, Todd said yes. "Based on what I saw in the video, I'm comfortable with what the officers did," the chief said.
Cass County prosecutor Reid Brady said in a message to The Forum that he cannot assess how the release of squad car video could impact the case.
"I suspect that law enforcement agencies have sometimes released similar information but don’t believe it’s too common,” Brady said. “It’s important to remember again that the charges are mere allegations at this time and the defendant is presumed innocent and has his full rights.”
Mark Friese, criminal defense attorney with the Vogel Law Firm in Fargo, said the release of video could have an adverse effect on the case because it may taint the jury pool or impact the defendant's right to a fair trial.
“I understand practically why the police are doing it, to dispel misinformation,” Friese said. “It appeared they did things right, and the public has a right to know that. Clearing misinformation was more important than the possibility of a minor impact on a later trial.”
Friese said a small number of cases go to trial, and in his 20 years of practicing law he’s only known of one case to be relocated because of pretrial publicity.