Media group sues Roswell police for full access to crime reports

A local media company has accused Roswell of violating the open records act. AJC FILE PHOTO

A local media company has accused Roswell of violating the open records act. AJC FILE PHOTO

A local newspaper chain has accused the city of Roswell of violating the state's open records act in a lawsuit that could have implications for how much access people have to public safety information.

And in an unusual twist, a councilman in neighboring Alpharetta has entered the fray by donating his salary to the newspaper’s cause.

The $900 donation from Alpharetta Councilman Ben Burnett will help Appen Media Group fund its lawsuit against Roswell over what police documents the public has a right to see. Publisher Hans Appen said for the past year, Roswell's police department has heavily redacted police reports to remove information that should be publicly available.

He said the city has doubled-down on the idea that its view is correct by refusing to settle the suit.

“We just want them to comply with the law,” he said.

The company filed suit in December, and last week asked for help raising money to fight the open records battle. Appen said the company had already spent more than $8,000 to push for more transparency from the city; a GoFundMe is trying to raise $50,000 to continue the effort. So far, it has raised more than $1,600.

“It is always important for elected officials to put their money where their mouth is,” Burnett said of his donation. “I just feel transparency is the most important part of government.”

Burnett, who works in technology, has a podcast hosted by Appen Media Group. He said he made about $1,500 this year through advertising on the podcast.

Appen publishes five weekly papers, including the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald, which covers local news for both communities. The company was formed in 1983, and Appen said this is the first time it has filed a suit for a violation of the open records law.

Like many community newspapers, the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald carries a page of crime reports gleaned from the narratives of police reports. But in the past year, Appen said, the narratives have largely been redacted or are short and non-descriptive. He also said the cost to retrieve those records has risen, and it has taken the city longer to comply with requests.

Richard T. Griffiths, the president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the reporting of crime and police activity is important to the public for a number of reasons. It allows people to make decisions about their movements and activities based on risk and it lets people know if the police department is adequately tracking what’s going on in the community.

Without knowledge of what crimes are occurring, the public can’t know if they’re being solved or if charges are being brought. They can’t know if published statistics are accurate or if there are enough resources available to combat crime in the community.

“To withhold that information from the public distorts what’s happening in the community,” he said. “If you don’t know about crime in your own neighborhood, you do not understand what’s happening in your community.”

Griffiths said the law is very clear: police incident reports should be provided without delay and without redaction, with few exceptions.

He said he is confident Appen Media Group will prevail in the case, but said a win for Roswell would be a huge “step backwards” for open records laws in the state. Griffiths said Georgia has a long track record of upholding open records laws because it’s in the public benefit to know what’s going on.

“It would be a significant setback, should judges decide police reports were not public records,” he said. “It would not be good for the citizens of Georgia.”

A spokesperson for the city of Roswell declined to comment on the suit. The city’s response to the lawsuit claimed that the suit didn’t comply with the law, that the statute of limitations had ended, that the city had sovereign immunity and couldn’t be sued and that there was no claim the media group made where a court could grant relief.

Helen Dunkin, the interim police chief, declined to comment on the litigation.

The Roswell police department has been under fire over the past year and a half, as a series of questionable incidents led to an outside audit of the department. A draft, released late last month, found issues with how the department is organized and managed.

Griffiths said the city’s refusal to make records available when the police department is under scrutiny “certainly raises a big red flag for me.”

Appen said by refusing to comply with open records requests fully and in a timely manner, Roswell’s actions made the newspaper’s pages look like all of the area’s crime takes place in Alpharetta, though that is not the case.

“It’s not an indication there there is more crime in Alpharetta,” Appen said of the disparity. “It’s an indication that Roswell does not take seriously its responsibility to citizens.”

Appen said he was surprised that Roswell was fighting the suit, which he initially budgeted $2,500 for. He said the city has spent more than $12,000 to defend itself, according to invoice information provided in an open records request.

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 metro Atlanta.

Saul Watzman, who also lives in Alpharetta, said what happens in Roswell matters to him, too. He donated $25 to the campaign.

“People have a right to know what crime is going on in the community,” he said. “It affects the way we do things.”

Burnett said he considers all of north Fulton to be one large community. He also wrote an op-ed for the Alpharetta-Roswell Herald, calling on the city to "sort out" the disagreement and comply with open records. He said he emailed a copy to Roswell's mayor, Lori Henry, but did not receive a response. The op-ed will appear in Thursday's Alpharetta-Roswell Herald.

Burnett said he doesn’t think the company has an axe to grind. He said governments can make mistakes, but to push back will have consequences.

“There is nothing that has been done that cannot be corrected,” he said. “They have the opportunity to respond and be above reproach.”

What police can redact?

Georgia law says law enforcement can withhold investigative records, but not initial incident or arrest reports. The law says narrative reports, supplemental reports and other reports that are produced as part of an initial incident report must be released, regardless of whether they’re part of an active investigation.

Some information — including confidential informants, names of rape victims, unlisted or cell phone numbers and account numbers — can be redacted from reports.