A drug bust last week in which two St. Paul, Minnesota, police officers identified themselves as census takers has caused an uproar. Census officials, public defenders and organizations involved in gaining public cooperation with the decennial census have strongly criticized the police action as disruptive to the census effort and possibly a violation of federal law.
St. Paul police spokesman Michael Jordan told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that two officers were talking to neighbors who had complained about a suspected drug house on St. Paul's East Side. They were confronted by a resident of the house who demanded to know who they were and what they were doing. It was then, said Jordan, that the officers identified themselves as census takers.
The official police report obtained by the Star-Tribune differs from Jordan's account. That report, written the day of the incident, says that the two officers, posing as census workers, went to the house and asked resident Heidi Frison for information about residents. Later that day, police armed with a search warrant raided the house and arrested four people, including Frison.
Frison and two others were charged only with "operating a disorderly house," but even those charges were later dropped against Frison and one of the other people.
Frison told the Star Tribune that two men who identified themselves as census workers talked to her outside her house before the raid. "They just said they were census workers," she said. "They said they were sent out because two houses had not filled out their forms. I took them as who they said they were. But I'm learning."
Ramsey County (St. Paul) public defenders who were assigned to the case informed local Census Bureau officials of the incident. Patricia Waller, Census Bureau manager for Ramsey and Washington counties told the Star-Tribune she was "just awed" at the officers' duplicity and that she was consulting with regional headquarters in Kansas City about whether the impersonation violated federal law.
She said she is concerned the incident may undermine public confidence in Census Bureau workers, who, she added, had no knowledge of the impersonation and did not condone it.
"I don't want the credibility of the St. Paul census office injured by this. We had absolutely no idea about this," Waller told the Star-Tribune.
Census Bureau officials in Washington and Kansas City who spoke to DRCNet were more reticent. All that the bureau will say, according to Washington spokesman Maury Kagel, is the following:
"The Census Bureau condemns any action which may erode public cooperation with any ongoing census activities, especially reports of people posing as Census Bureau employees. This is particularly important as we contact households across the country in the next few months, during quality check operations as part of the overall task of making Census 2000 complete and accurate. We understand that this matter is under investigation with the St. Paul Police Department and appreciate their efforts to see that such misrepresentations will not be repeated."
Ramsey County public defenders were less sanguine than Census Bureau officials, who appear willing to let the matter slide. "I don't know if [the officers] broke the law, but it seems to me that what they did was highly unethical and so unprofessional that it should be discontinued immediately," assistant public defender Diane Alshouse, told the Star-Tribune.
The police action undermines Census Bureau efforts to convince members of minority groups, which have traditionally been undercounted in the census, that census data is kept private and that census workers can be trusted.
The public defenders said that they had, at the request of census officials, encouraged their clients to cooperate with census workers. Now, they said, they fear they have lost their clients' trust.
Law enforcement attempts to hide behind the census are rare but not unknown. According to the Washington Post, earlier this year census officials in Texas rejected an FBI agent's demand for a census worker badge and other identification. The agent wanted to impersonate a census worker for an ongoing investigation.
Federal law states that "whoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the United States or any department, agency, or officer thereof, and acts as such, or in such pretended character demands or obtains any money, paper, document, or thing of value, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."