Ga. police agencies fare poorly in statewide open records audit
Georgia law enforcement agencies looked somewhat less than law-abiding when student journalists asked for public records last fall, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation reported this week.
Authorities refused students’ requests for records, charged them excessive fees and grilled them on why they wanted the information, the students found. One sheriff complained about the student and his professor to the president of Mercer University.
Overall, police agencies complied with 42 percent of the records requests filed by students at eight Georgia universities, the foundation reported. Other agencies — university foundations, athletics departments, county commissions and other county agencies — turned over public records nearly twice as often, with a compliance rate of 70 percent or higher.
The study, a “Sunshine Audit” that updates a similar audit performed in 1999, was conducted by the foundation in conjunction with journalism programs at eight Georgia universities. Kennesaw State’s Carolyn Carlson, a communications professor and formerly a longtime writer and editor with the Associated Press’ Atlanta bureau, helped to coordinate the effort and trained students and faculty.
The students’ experiences with public safety agencies were particularly telling:
— DeKalb County police turned away an Emory University student three times before a helpful police officer printed the requested records on his office computer. “They were trying to avoid all possible ways for me to get a public record,” the student said. “It became a goal of mine more than a class project to get those documents.”
— Bulloch County refused to give up the jail log when Ashley King, a Georgia Southern University student, asked for it. Ultimately, she was told, “Due to sensitive information in the jail list, I cannot release them to the public.”
— Heren Richardson of Georgia Southern was subjected to an “interrogation” when she asked for incident reports from the Screven County sheriff’s department. “Officials wanted to know who she was, why she wanted the records, which class they were for and who the professor was. On top of that, she had to produce her ID card.”
— The Bibb County sheriff’s department told a Mercer University student asking for police brutality complaints that Bibb had no policy brutality. The department eventually asked for a $108 copying fee before releasing the records, and the sheriff lodged a complaint letter about the student with Mercer’s president.
— Fulton County fire department officials ordered student Andrew Felson to leave the building when he made his records request. Felson said an official told him they ‘do not give that information to just anyone.”
Many students, the foundation reported, encountered “teaching moments” on the realities of public access in Georgia:
Although a number of students reported polite encounters with officials, many were taken aback by rude treatment, discouragement from obtaining records and limited knowledge of public records access among officials and their staffs. …
Their experiences underscored the need for persistence in obtaining information from many officials. And
they highlighted the central role of journalists in ensuring that government remains open.
“It just goes to show that you have no rights unless you remind the powers that be that you have them,” [Michael] Overmier, the Georgia Southern student, concluded.