By Julia Grochowski - March 21, 2019
ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Appen Media Group, publisher of the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald newspaper, has filed suit against the City of Roswell and its Police Department for violation of the Georgia Open Records Act.
The suit, filed Dec. 27 in Fulton County Superior Court, alleges the Police Department has consistently withheld vital information about criminal incidents that are, by law, public records.
The suit also alleges the department has consistently failed to meet the time requirements for providing requested records, in some cases by nearly a month.
In a filing with the court March 11, attorneys for the city denied Roswell has engaged in any wrongdoing and that some or all of the newspaper’s complaints are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a principle that shields certain governments and their agencies from prosecution in civil or criminal court.
"If we don’t have an accurate picture of what’s happening here in Roswell, then how are we supposed to keep our families safe?”
- Meghan McClanahan, Roswell resident
Georgia’s Open Records Law provides that county, city and school governments make available all public records for inspection and copying. The law defines public records as all documents, tapes, photographs, computer-based or generated information prepared and maintained or receivedby an agency.
List of exceptions limited
The law provides some exceptions for law enforcement agencies, such as the names of police informants or confidential investigative techniques. It also excludes certain records relating to pending investigations and prosecutions.
The law does not, however, exempt initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports.
It also requires police and other government agencies to turn over the requested material within three business days or provide a reason for the delay or cite the statute by which the request has been denied.
The newspaper claims that not only were the Roswell Police incident reports redacted to the point of illegibility, but they were days — sometimes weeks — late in coming.
“There is no authority which allows the City of Roswell to fail to make them available upon request,” the suit argues.
Appen attorneys David and Brooks Hudson also cite a 1995 Georgia Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the Atlanta Journal Constitution vs. the City of Brunswick, Ga. In that case, the state High Court ruled, in part, that “the entirety of an initial arrest, accident or incident report would not be exempted from disclosure … even if that report is part of a "pending investigation or prosecution.”
Residents favor transparency
Some Roswell residents say the actions by the Police Department are reflective of the city’s government as a whole.
“I don’t trust the City of Roswell government as far as I could throw it,” said Michael Litten, who successfully sued former Mayor Jere Wood over term limits in 2016. “I don’t think there’s any transparency in that government.”
Roswell resident Meghan McClanahan said citizens rely on accurate crime information to safeguard their families.
“It’s important to me, specifically, because I have small children,” she said. “So if there’s an assault or burglary or a child missing or human trafficking — having a complete picture of what’s happening here in Roswell in regards to that is important to me. If we don’t have an accurate picture of what’s happening here in Roswell, then how are we supposed to keep our families safe?”
McClanahan said there should be no leeway in police withholding of crime information.
“I think that any government entity where the taxpayers’ money is involved that we should be able to get a complete picture of what’s happening,” she said.
Resident Rebecca Stone said she thinks the Open Records Act keeps government accountable.
“I think compliance with the act should be complete and transparent,” she said. At the same time, she added, sometimes information is released before all the facts are known, and that can present an inaccurate picture.
“I think it would be better if we got the facts all at the same time,” Stone said. “But sometimes that takes time.”
Janet Russell, a local government watchdog, said she thinks the degree of information released should fit the crime.
“I don’t think we need to see every single detail of a crime, but I do think we need to be able to see that a crime happened,” she said.
Russell said information on violent crimes, like kidnapping or rape, should be released promptly so residents are made aware of potential dangers.
“I think it’s important to know if people are being attacked at a park or on a walkway, where people are out in what they think is a safe environment,” she said, adding that many times, news about crimes travels through word of mouth or on social network.
Overall, though, she said she believes Roswell is safer than most people think.
Recent woes plague department
The Roswell Police Department has weathered a series of recent controversies over the past year.
Last July, two officers were dismissed after body cameras revealed they used a coin toss app to decide the fate of a motorist they had pulled over on a traffic violation in April. Rusty Grant, the police chief at the time, called for an internal investigation into the department days after the video surfaced.
Two other police body camera videos came out during the year that put the department under scrutiny. One showed officers detaining a 13-year-old boy in a patrol car with all the windows rolled down on a mid-winter night. A sergeant is heard on camera telling other officers he is attempting to get the child to answer his questions by subjecting him to the below-freezing temperatures.
The other video came from an event that happened almost three years ago. The recording showed a police dog attacking a teenage boy who was complying with instructions from the police officer. The teen is on video screaming in pain from the bites while being asked to remain still.
Last September, the Roswell City Council voted to subject the department to an investigative audit by an outside firm. Then, in December, Grant announced he would retire from the department after five years at the helm.
Finally, 11Alive News reported early this year that it learned of the existence of a “second set of books” the department keeps regarding incident reports. The news station reported that in one case, an officer allegedly punched a handcuffed suspect who was kicking the security divider in his patrol car. The official report for release to the public contained a narrative of the arrest but made no mention of the punching incident. The station then obtained a copy of a separate report that carried more details, including the punching incident.