Sandy Springs sued over open records, accused of withholding police reports

Attorneys for Appen Media filed a complaint against the city in Fulton County Superior Court earlier this month

Sandy Springs is being accused of withholding information in police reports in violation of the Georgia Open Records Act.

Attorneys for Appen Media, which publishes the Sandy Springs Crier and Alpharetta-Roswell Herald, filed a complaint against the city in Fulton County Superior Court on May 12.

The lawsuit will test how much information local police departments can withhold from the public at a time when law enforcement agencies across the country face calls for increased transparency and accountability.

Generally, the Georgia Open Records Act requires that government documents be open to public inspection. But there are some exceptions that allow government agencies to withhold or redact certain records.

Appen Media started covering Sandy Springs in October 2022 and often submits open record requests to the police department, Director of Content & Development Carl Appen said.

According to the complaint filed by the Hull Barrett law firm, Sandy Springs refused to include detailed officer narratives of police incidents when the news organization submitted open records requests. Instead, the police narratives were only one sentence, incident reports attached to the lawsuit show.

“We were not (receiving) the full reports,” Appen said. “We immediately said ... ‘What’s going on here?’”

Police reports in other jurisdictions such as Roswell or Alpharetta typically include a narrative page with several paragraphs in which the officer describes the incident in his or her own words.

The news organization is seeking a court order to provide the records “without redacted or truncated narratives.” Appen also wants Sandy Springs to pay its legal fees.

Sandy Springs officials say officer narratives are not part of the initial police report and the city is not required to release them under the Georgia Open Records Act.

In a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a city spokesperson said releasing officer narratives could compromise investigations and public safety.

“The Open Records Act clearly mandates that initial incident reports are to be disclosed, as well as any supplements to the initial reports,” the statement said. “However, the supplemental reports mentioned in the complaint are separate from the initial reports.”

The Sandy Springs statement adds that the city “prides itself on its record of openness and transparency, while at the same time protecting the general public by maintaining the integrity of open investigations.”

Richard T. Griffiths, a spokesman for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said Sandy Springs is violating the open records act and limiting the public’s ability to hold government officials accountable.

“It will be an expensive mistake for the city,” Griffiths predicted. “... Anytime you have a situation where government officials or law enforcement officials feel that public records are their private property, that’s a very dangerous place for us to be.”

Sandy Springs has 30 days to respond to the legal complaint, said Brooks Hudson, an attorney at Hull Barrett.