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Appen Media files suit in Sandy Springs open records case

Sandy Springs Police Reports lawsuit

Sandy Springs is headed to court for routinely blocking public access to police reports, according to a Fulton County filing May 12. 

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — Appen Media Group has filed a lawsuit against the City of Sandy Springs over access to information from police reports.

In an official complaint filed in the Superior Court of Fulton County May 12, Appen Media Group, which publishes the Sandy Springs Crier, Alpharetta-Roswell Herald and four other weekly newspapers in north Metro Atlanta, alleged that it has repeatedly been denied access to initial police officer narratives that are routinely filed during investigations.

Excerpts from police reports included in the complaint involve cases of aggravated assault, street racing and reckless driving, indecent exposure and weapons law violations. But in each case, the investigative report narrative contained one sentence with limited details about what allegedly occurred during the incident.

The newsgroup alleges that despite guidance from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and multiple other state agencies that initial narrative information must be released under Georgia law, Sandy Springs has denied records requests under the pretense that releasing narrative information would hinder police investigations.

“In requesting the incident reports from Sandy Springs, The Newspaper has asked for arrest reports, including any supplemental reports or narratives from the reporting officer,” Brooks K. Hudson, an attorney representing Appen Media, wrote in the complaint. “Sandy Springs will then provide the Newspaper with an incident report that either has no narrative, or a one-line narrative that gives little to no detail about the incident.”

Without narrative information about what occurred during initial police investigations, Appen Media executives said that neither they nor members of the public will have an accurate understanding of crimes that occur in the community.

While not referenced in the lawsuit, reports filed alongside the complaint also redact the names of officers, without any justification for why the redactions would be permitted under Georgia law.

“The law requires that all initial reports are subject to open records laws, regardless of whether they are called ‘initial incident reports’, ‘supplemental reports’, ‘narrative reports’, or something else,” Appen Media Publisher Hans Appen said. “Cities cannot avoid disclosure requirements by simply calling files something other than what they are.”

In an email from February, Sandy Springs City Attorney Dan Lee claims that Appen Media’s reading of the law is mistaken, and the city is only required to provide “public supplements” to initial police incident reports, but not other types of supplemental reports.

Lee said that when cases are closed, and there is no threat that an investigation will be compromised, the city is willing to release more documents.

“It is apparent Appen believes that more information is required in the initial incident report, but Georgia Law does not support that requirement,” Lee said. “The City prides itself on transparency and has not encountered this complaint from any other outlet.”

Appen argues they believe that Sandy Springs is violating both the intentions and spirit of Georgia’s Open Records Law by upholding a policy that provides citizens with virtually no details about what crimes are occurring in their community.

“Our ability to obtain complete reports is one of the best tools we have for giving the public an account of how their tax dollars are being spent, how police resources are being prioritized, and how safe their families are in their homes, schools and driving down the street,” Appen said. “We do this accountability journalism and file these open records requests so that the public doesn’t have to. We do need the city to do their part though in supplying us the information to relay.”

Beyond that violation, Appen said that Sandy Springs is the only municipality in north Metro Atlanta that provides limited or no narrative as part of incident reports released through open records requests.

“We do not have this issue with our public safety coverage for Alpharetta, Roswell, Johns Creek, Milton, Forsyth County, or Dunwoody,” Appen said. “They generally do a good job of giving us initial incident reports, which provide the public with a baseline of the who, what, when and where a crime has occurred.”

In 2018 Appen Media Group sued the City of Roswell over similar alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.

As part of the lawsuit, Appen Media alleged the Roswell Police Department had consistently withheld vital information about criminal incidents from public records. The lawsuit also alleged that the Roswell Police Department had failed to meet time requirements for supplying the reports after requests were made.

After a year of legal maneuvering on both sides of the suit, members of the Roswell City Council voted to settle the lawsuit in 2019, agreeing to pay the media company $10,500 in attorney’s fees and provide them a year’s worth of free open records requests.

“Filing suit was always our last and least desirable option,” Appen said. “We spent months and months going back and forth with the city [of Sandy Springs] giving them every opportunity to comply with the law and fill our records requests. They refused, so here we are.”

In an email, Sandy Springs Communications Director Andrew Allison said the city stands by its interpretation of the Georgia Open Records Law and they are ready to meet the complaint in a court of law.

“Sandy Springs will continue to release all appropriate information required under the Open Records Act and, if the lawsuit proceeds, the city will seek to recover costs, damages and attorneys’ fees to respond to these allegations which question the city’s integrity," Allison stated.

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Reach Alexander Popp at 770-847-7404. Follow him on Twitter @Popp2Alex.