After nearly a year of legal sparring, the City of Roswell has settled a lawsuit filed by Appen Media Group over alleged violations of the Georgia Open Records Act.
City Council members voted unanimous Oct. 28, with no discussion, to pay $10,500 in attorney’s fees for Appen and provide the company a year’s worth of free open records requests. As a part of the settlement, the city admits no liability.
The settlement does not bar Appen Media Group, publisher of the Herald and Crier newspapers in north Atlanta, from pursuing legal action for any future Open Records Act violations.
A year in the making
Appen Media Group filed suit Dec. 27, 2018 in the Fulton County Superior Court, alleging that the Roswell Police Department had consistently withheld vital information about criminal incidents from public records. Several police records obtained by the company contained large blocks of redacted material or little to no information in the officer’s incident report.
Under Georgia law, the officer narratives are public records the public is entitled to see, inspect and copy. There are some exceptions for law enforcement agencies, such as identifying confidential sources and details relating to pending investigations. However, initial police report narratives, like those requested by Appen Media Group, are not exempt.
The lawsuit also alleged that the Roswell Police Department had failed to meet time requirements for supplying the reports after requests were made.
On March 11, attorneys representing the city denied any wrongdoing and stated that some or all of the newspaper’s complaints were barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a policy which states that a governing body cannot be sued without its consent.
Appen Media Group’s suit came on the heels of several unearthed incidents that involved the Roswell Police Department.
The first, and by far most widely circulated, was an incident in which two police officers used a coin toss app to decide the fate of a woman pulled over for speeding. A video of the incident surfaced, and, in the wake of online outrage, then Chief Rusty Grant called for an internal investigation. The two officers involved in the incident were later dismissed from the department.
Two other videos surfaced weeks later. One showed officers detaining a 13-year-old boy in a patrol car with all the windows rolled down on a winter night. A sergeant is heard on camera telling other officers he is attempting to get the child to answer his questions by subjecting him to the below-freezing temperatures.
Another video, from an incident that took place three years ago, showed a police dog attacking a teenage boy who was complying with instructions from the police officer. The teen is shown screaming in pain from the bites while being asked to remain still.
Lawsuit gains traction with residents
About six months into the lawsuit, Appen Media Group posted a fundraiser on GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform, to help cover litigation costs.
The campaign raised $4,220 from 62 donors, many of them Roswell residents.
“They were critical to continuing our efforts,” said Appen Media Group Publisher Hans Appen. “The initial response from the city was unexpected, and our attorney’s fees are now in the neighborhood of $14,000. For any small business, that would be a challenging expense, so the [donations] went a long way to getting us to this result, and I am very grateful to them.”
The last running total reported from Roswell is that the city has spent more than $12,000 on the litigation.
Scott Long, a Roswell resident who donated to the Appen GoFundMe campaign, commented on the fundraising page that he felt comfortable donating to the lawsuit because he trusted the newspaper and its efforts.
Several supporters likewise said they believed in the public’s rights as outlined in the Open Records Act.
“As a mom and an active community member, I feel it is integral to our safety that we have accurate and timely reporting on crime in our city,” said resident Meghan McClanahan. “Transparency is government is our right.”
Stephen Dorvee, who was on the Roswell City Council in the 1990s, said he was appalled by how the city acted.
“While we were not perfect, we were open about what we did,” he said. “The council and mayor at that time were careful not to violate the Open Records Act. I am appalled that the city is acting this way, not to mention irritated that our money is being spent on this fool’s mission.”
The lawsuit also caught the attention of neighboring cities.
Alpharetta City Councilman Ben Burnett donated $900, his monthly salary as a council member, to the cause. He said the settlement speaks volumes.
“Just because you don’t admit guilt doesn’t mean you’re not guilty as sin,” Burnett said, adding that he was 100 percent certain the newspaper was in the right.
Progress toward transparency, accessibility
While the lawsuit has coaxed more transparency and accessibility from the City of Roswell and its police department, there’s still room for improvement, Appen said.
“It is not 100 percent where we think it should be, but we feel comfortable formally ending our suit in good faith that the progress will continue,” he said.
Just as importantly, he added, the suit sends a message to neighboring agencies.
“Not only does it send a message to Roswell that we care and are paying attention,” Appen said. “It sends a message to every other municipality in the state that transparency by government agencies is important and there are people out there — whether it is us, another newspaper, or just a concerned citizen — that will go to great lengths to ensure the law is followed.”
Atlanta’s 11 Alive Chief Investigative Reporter Brendan Keefe, whose team uncovered the controversial videos of Roswell police officers last year, said he has already seen positive changes in the ways local governments handle open record requests.
Like Appen Media Group, Keefe and other 11Alive reporters questioned records they received that were heavily redacted with little to no information from the City of Roswell. Further investigation by 11Alive revealed two sets of books the Roswell Police Department had used for police reports: a public, redacted narrative and a more detailed, separate report for internal and court use.
Keefe pointed to an incident, which resulted in the termination of a Roswell police officer, in which he obtained a truncated police report from the city that made no mention the officer’s misconduct.
“What’s really important here is that when there is official misconduct, it is usually going to be in that incident report narrative that before this Appen Media Group lawsuit and settlement would have been kept from us and was kept from us,” Keefe said. “The narratives are critical to understanding what happened in the incident… We absolutely rely on the Open Records Act to get access to the people’s records to see what’s going on inside these opaque agencies, particularly when there are allegations of corruption.”
The lawsuit, he said, is a good start to having all police departments across the state comply with Georgia’s Open Records Act.
Keefe said he has used the Appen lawsuit with other police agencies outside of Roswell to compel them to give the full public narrative.
“It would not have been possible before this lawsuit, because they now understand that there is a real cost to denying transparency and openness in government with the public and with the press,” Keefe said. “It’s going to make us all more informed and, frankly, it’s going to make our communities better and safer places to live.”