Transparency experts say the Atlanta Police Department, led by Chief George Turner, left, is violating the Georgia Open Records Act by not releasing documentation of threats against Mayor Kasim Reed, pictured here at an August news conference with Turner. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: John Spink
Photo: John Spink

‘Thousands’ of threats against Mayor Reed are secret, police claim

In defending the mayor and his security team, Police Chief George Turner said Reed must be allowed to flash his blue lights because he is in near constant danger. Since the mayor’s inauguration in 2010, Reed has received thousands of threats, Turner told WSB’s Channel 2 Action News, which filmed the mayor speeding around town 10 separate times.

Thousands?

Reed has been mayor of Atlanta for roughly 2,500 days, so if Turner is telling the truth Reed has been on the receiving end of a threat virtually every day of his tenure as mayor. If true, that should horrify us all.

It also would be a terrible burden on his security staff and the city police department. Clearly they would be anxious to identify suspects, track down leads and bring the offenders to the bar of justice. As a city, we could not let such terrorists get away with it.

So I asked the city police to produce records showing threats against the mayor since his 2010 inauguration, including incident reports and arrest logs. The police turned me down flat, refusing to disclose even a shred of evidence that such threats exist.

The department is leaning on a couple of the many exceptions to the state’s open records law, the first of which is that records of pending investigations are not open to public inspection. All of them are open, they said.

“Investigations into threats are never really closed as there is no way to know that the threat maker has ceased being a threat,” the department said in an emailed statement.

The city also cited a law that allows them to hide records when revealing them would expose “security plans and vulnerability assessments” involving the mayor’s protections.

Are investigations all still open?

There is so much that is wrong with the city’s refusal to be transparent.

For instance, police cannot be (or should not be) investigating threats made in 2010 and 2011. Even if they were to catch someone they would have a hard time bringing them to justice. The statute of limitations for terroristic threats is four years, so if Chief Turner’s estimate is correct, hundreds of those threats are not prosecutable and the investigations into them should be closed and the records made public.

“They couldn’t all be open,” criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant said. “You can’t just say something is open if there is no imminent prosecution.”

Georgia courts agree with Merchant on that score. While the city’s attorneys believe these cases “are never really closed,” the Georgia Supreme Court, in 1989 and again in 2008, ruled government officials cannot withhold law enforcement records open indefinitely.

And even if all of the threats remain under active investigation, the same law they cite claiming they can withhold the records still requires the department to turn over incident reports and arrest reports. This is an important part of the law since it stops police from locking people up in secret.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the city’s decision to withhold those reports “is improper on its face, and a violation of the open records law.”

So the city is either breaking the law or admitting that the department has been investigating “thousands” of threats over six years but has never made a single arrest or filed even the most basic police document.

“That’s what they are comfortable with,” said Anne Torres, Reed’s spokeswoman. Torres said she wouldn’t get into whether the exemptions were proper. That’s for the lawyers to decide, she said.

“Every threat received is treated as a credible threat,” Torres said. “In the interest of protecting the mayor and his family, the Atlanta Police Department will not share specific details of threats made against the mayor and/or his family.”

Incident reports should be public

That gets to the second leg of the city’s argument. State law allows government to keep hidden specific security plans to protect government buildings, activities and people.

When the city first tried to make that argument I clarified that I was seeking documents showing threats received, not their security measures. Unless the person making the threat had intimate knowledge of the city’s security plan, I could not reasonably see how the city could keep the records secret.

I even said the city could black out anything that revealed security measures and release the rest. It would at least be something.

No dice, the city said. “It is our position that the records are related to the activities of executive protection, and thus are exempt,” was the terse response.

Merchant said it doesn’t make sense. At the very least, the city could release bare statistics — times and dates of when threats were received.

“You don’t need the substance of the threat,” she said, adding that the law doesn’t “protect that a threat call had been taken.”

Manheimer said it’s an improper use of the law.

“This exemption was not written to shield arrest and incident reports, but a much more narrow category of material,” she said.

Transparency: a citizen’s only recourse

There is another possibility. Maybe Turner was wrong and Reed’s use of the blue lights and sirens to get to his appointments isn’t related to “thousands” of credible threats to harm him.

But Torres went on to double down on Turner’s estimate, saying that at the height of the controversy surrounding the 2015 firing of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, Reed received “more than 10,000 emails, letters, and telephone calls to his home – many of them of a disturbing, and even dangerous, nature.” Reed dismissed Cochran after the chief published a book that contained strident anti-gay views.

“In fact, your former colleague (City Hall reporter) Katie Leslie reported that some emails referenced the mayor as a ‘Muslim terrorist’ and the ‘anti-Christ,’” she said.

At the time Leslie, who has since moved on to the Dallas Morning News’ Washington bureau, reported the mayor talked publicly about receiving nasty messages at his home, which is believable considering the atmosphere surrounding Cochran’s dismissal.

However, being called the Antichrist is an insult, not a threat. In and of itself, it’s not a police matter.

There could be another reason city officials won’t release the records. They might be pissed off.

Torres made it clear the city won’t budge.

“Further, it is deeply disturbing that both WSB and The AJC continue to engage in the reckless behavior of turning the mayor’s personal safety into a sensationalized, news event during what is clearly an unstable and unpredictable time,” she said in a statement.

Let’s be clear: Every law-abiding person wants the mayor to be safe. At the same time, government transparency is the citizen’s only recourse to fairly judge the actions and policies of the people we elect.

If government officials want to make claims in public to justify their actions, they should have the guts to open the books and let the public see what’s inside. Either that or just admit they lied.

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As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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