Judge rules against Appen Media in Sandy Springs police records suit

Open government expert said ruling, if not reversed, could be detrimental to transparency in policing
Sandy Springs City Hall. (Courtesy City of Sandy Springs)

Credit: custom

Credit: custom

Sandy Springs City Hall. (Courtesy City of Sandy Springs)

A Fulton County judge has ruled against a community newspaper group that sued Sandy Springs, alleging that the city illegally withheld police incident report narratives that should be released under Georgia law.

The ruling, if not reversed on appeal, could have profound implications for open government in Georgia, a media ethicist said. The ruling would give police the ability to withhold information about crime and incident responses that are vital to the public interest, he said.

“This is a really bad precedent that will put Georgia ten years, twenty years backward in open government in policing,” said Richard T. Griffiths, a former CNN executive and Georgia First Amendment Foundation board member. “It defies logic.”

The ruling comes as policing is under intense scrutiny nationwide, with calls from the public for greater transparency and accountability by law enforcement.

Appen Media, owner of newspapers including the Sandy Springs Crier, sued the city in May alleging that Sandy Springs police refused to produce detailed officer narratives in response to requests for police incident reports made under the Georgia Open Records Act.

The act requires Georgia governmental entities to produce records for public inspection, with some exceptions, but those exceptions should be narrowly interpreted, according to historical interpretations law.

Exceptions include police investigative files for cases that have not been closed. But courts and the Georgia Attorney General’s office have a long history of interpreting the law as requiring police to make narratives open to public inspection.

Police and sheriff’s offices routinely produce initial reports that detail information about incidents, including narratives written by responding officers. Appen alleged that Sandy Springs police releases reports typically with a single sentence.

Appen sued seeking the records “without redacted or truncated narratives,” as well as for the city to pay its legal fees.

Sandy Springs contends the police department does not redact the narratives. Instead, the officer narratives are not part of the initial report, even if they are drafted at the same time. Instead, the narratives are included in “supplemental” filings and are withheld until the conclusion of investigations.

Prior to filing its lawsuit, Appen discussed its open records complaint with the office of Attorney General Chris Carr, which mediates open records disputes between government agencies and the public. In an unofficial opinion last December that the media group published in a recent article, an assistant attorney general described her office’s interpretation that “‘initial incident report’ should not be treated as ‘magic words.’”

“So, a page should not be treated as separate from an initial incident report just because it has a different title, like ‘supplemental report,’ at the top of the page,” Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo wrote. “A common-sense interpretation of ‘initial incident report’ is that anything written at the same time as the first part of the report is part of the initial incident report.”

Fulton Superior Court Judge Kimberley M. Esmond Adams disagreed. She cited a police captain’s deposition describing the department’s process that an initial report and supplemental report are handled differently, even if processed at the same time and as such are used as part of pending investigations.

The judge went on to say that Appen “may be correct in its assertion that Defendant’s practice violates the spirit of the Open Records Act.”

Griffiths said the ruling “runs counter to the intent and spirit of the Open Records Act,” and allow police departments to “play games” with the vital transparency law.

“What this does is further undermine trust in policing,” he said. “We have a situation in this state where various parts of the state do not trust their police departments and where policing is a huge issue and this cannot help this mistrust.”

Griffiths urged Appen to appeal the ruling, which, if upheld, could allow law enforcement statewide to withhold information about crime in residents’ communities.

“It is going to be very difficult for citizens and communities to understand what is happening related to crime in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Late Saturday, Appen Publisher and CEO Hans Appen said the company plans to appeal.

“Allowing this ruling to stand would have far reaching and damaging repercussions for transparency in Georgia,” he said. “It would establish a permission structure for other police departments to follow suit and default to non-disclosure of public documents.”

A spokesman for the city of Sandy Springs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

-Staff writer Caroline Silva contributed to this report.