Roswell leaders have pledged to make police records available following a lawsuit filed by Appen Media Group. AJC FILE PHOTO

After lawsuit, Roswell agrees to provide more complete police reports

The city of Roswell has pledged to make full police reports available in response to public records requests after a local media company filed suit accusing the city of violating the state’s open records laws.

In a memo dated July 10 — the same day The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a front-page story about the lawsuit — Roswell’s city manager and city attorney wrote to all police officers telling them the city’s policy had changed.

“From today forward, until decided otherwise, full initial police arrest reports and incident reports for all misdemeanor City or State violations shall be released in response to request for public records,” the memo said. It added that requests for reports for felonies or incidents under investigation should immediately be sent to the city attorney’s office for response.

Hans Appen, the publisher of the Appen Media Group, said he was optimistic the change would mean that Roswell would stop redacting information from incident reports that should be publicly available. Appen’s company filed suit in December, saying police incident report narratives had largely been redacted or were short and non-descriptive, the cost to retrieve those records had risen and it was taking the city longer than it should to comply with requests.

After a Thursday meeting with Roswell representatives, Appen said they assured him that they would be more responsive. Previously, Roswell had refused to settle the lawsuit, Appen said.

“Obviously, we want them to comply with the law,” he said. “They’re giving every indication they will.”

The city had spent more than $12,000 to defend the case, as of early July. Appen said he has spent more than $10,000, though he plans to ask the city to cover the company’s legal bills. A GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost has raised more than $4,000.

Appen publishes the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald, which includes a page of crime reports that has information from the narratives of police reports in both cities. Without accurate information about crime in Roswell, Appen said, residents are left with the mistaken impression that Alpharetta has more crime, when that is not the case.

Roswell and Alpharetta, long-established north Fulton cities, have about 150,000 residents between them. They are more affluent than the rest of metro Atlanta, and residents tend to be better educated. In both cities, the median value of a home is more than $100,000 more than in the rest of the metro Atlanta.

“We want to make sure the citizens of Roswell have every ounce of information so they know what the safest neighborhoods are, what types of crime are being committed, how to protect themselves,” Appen said.

Members of Roswell’s city council put out a statement last week saying the city strives to follow all laws regarding open records, and wants to make sure it is open and transparent. They said they instructed the city attorney to continue talks with Appen’s attorney, and urged the legal department to review records requests to ensure compliance.

“We strongly believe in an open, transparent government and charge staff to go above and beyond when following the fundamental requirements of the State of Georgia open records laws,” the council members said.

Lori Henry, Roswell’s mayor, did not sign the statement. She said it was because Roswell’s legal department recommended that there be no comment on pending litigation, and the Appen lawsuit is still active. Council members made the statement “with the express concern of the legal department,” she said.

“I did not want to go down that road,” Henry said. “I don’t want to shoulder responsibility because I stuck my nose in something the legal department told me not to.”

But Matt Judy, a member of city council, said he and his colleagues decided to speak out because he thought it was “really important” that people know the city was working to solve the issue.

Roswell’s police department has come under fire over the past year and a half for several incidents. A now-demoted sergeant’s body camera footage showed him leaving a 13-year-old boy in a cold patrol car and taunting the boy in January 2018. Officers pulled over an off-duty police officer but let him go with a warning after he admitted to speeding and drinking alcohol before driving in March 2018. And two officers were fired for using a coin-flip app to decide whether to arrest a woman during a traffic stop in April 2018.

An audit, completed in June, showed the department had low morale, poor leadership and a dearth of minority and female officers. James W. Conroy, the retired chief of the DeKalb County police department, took over in Roswell this week after the last police chief retired in December.

Judy, the council member, said he saw Conroy’s ascent as a way to start fresh and ensure that open records laws were being followed.

“Your citizenry has the right to know what’s going on,” he said. “I think it’s just something that needs to be fixed right away.”

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