The findings of a citizen board created to keep the public apprised of alleged police misconduct have been removed from the board's website, making it more difficult for Atlantans to track complaints of excessive force and rude behavior.
That decision, made by the board's temporary director, surprised the board’s newly elected chairman as well as other watchdog agencies, especially considering the community's sagging trust of the Atlanta Police Department when Atlanta Citizens Review Board was created.
“It’s something we need to discuss as a board and decide what to do,” ACRB Chairman Paul Bartels said, adding that the issue would be on the agenda of the monthly meeting on Thursday.
“That’s amazing,” said Tiffany Williams, who works with the Atlanta police watchdog group Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety. “What interim ED [executive director] comes in and does a thing like that?”
Attorney Sharese Shields, who is temporarily overseeing the ARCB office until a new executive director is hired, said she removed the information from the website because she wanted to protect the “privacy” of those who filed complaints against Atlanta police and corrections officers. She said the minutes of future meetings also would not be put on the website because those discussions also will include names.
“This is a judgment call,” Shields said, explaining that there were no complaints that prompted her decision.
Former ACRB executive director Cristina Beamund, who resigned last fall, said she made it clear to those bringing complaints about police behavior that all those records would be available to the public once the investigations were completed.
“It’s still subject to open records law. People are able to easily find information," said Shields, who was the ACRB's first chair when it was created in 2007. “... We didn’t want to put that kind of sensitive information on the Internet because of privacy concerns. We’re just saying, ‘If you want the information, you have to go through proper legal channels.’”
Records remain available under the Georgia Open Records Act, she said. The difference is the information will be in paper and not electronic form, which would require requesters to pay for copies or to come to City Hall during regular hours to review the documents.
“Submit a request and we’ll respond to it [within three business days],” Shields said. “The question is, does that burden outweigh the privacy issue of the individual? And I don’t think it does.”
Shields said the agency is still meeting its prescribed goal of ensuring “accountability and transparency in the complaint process.”
The ACRB was created five years ago after APD narcotics officers shot to death a 92-year-old woman in her home during a botched drug raid. Shortly after the raid, it was reported some of the officers involved had multiple complaints filed against them but little, if anything, had been done in response.
In the first days, city officials boasted the citizens board would restore public confidence in Atlanta's police force because problems would be publicly addressed. But the agency soon began to struggle. Six months passed before the board was ever named and it was more than a year after the Johnston shooting that the board opened its first case.
The APD, the police union and officers initially refused to answer questions from ACRB investigators until the board was given subpoena power and officers were assured their answers would not be used to bring criminal charges against them.
And statistics show that the police chief almost always agreed with the board’s recommendations only when they were in the officers’ favor. Otherwise Chief George Turner rejected the findings.
Since the board was created, APD and the police union have objected to making public the names of the officers involved in ACRB files.
Though Shields said she has not spoken with police officials, Marshall Racancifer, another member of BLOCS, said he suspects the change was made to appease APD and the union.
"Many ACRB complainants have made no secret about their displeasure with the Atlanta Police Department," Racancifer said. "They have held press conferences and have filed public lawsuits."
Hollie Manheimer with the First Amendment Foundation said the state’s open records law does not require information be posted on the Internet but the spirit of the law does.
“Should they [post it]? Yes,” Manheimer said. “The Open Records Act says records shall be made available electronically where practicable. There is no downside for public agencies to post things on line. Since the purpose of the Open Records Act is to maximize public access, posting things on the web is the way to go.”
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