Arrest reports are public records.
All of them.
Initial incident reports are public records.
All of them.
Police departments and sheriff’s offices cannot withhold those reports or heavily redact them.
It is illegal to do so.
Those entrusted with enforcing the law must keep the law.
It does not matter how sensitive those arrest and initial incident reports are – they are still public record and must be released promptly. That’s what the law says.
It does not matter if there is an ongoing investigation.
Even if an open investigation is underway, everything contained in the initial incident report or the arrest report must be released.
Yes, an investigative file itself may be withheld from disclosure while the investigation is underway but that exception to the Georgia Open Records Act does not include the initial arrest or incident reports.
The requirement to release these documents in a timely manner includes the narratives about the incident or arrest or the page of information that law-enforcement agencies like to call the “supplement.”
The supplement is an open and public record and must be released.
Once again, that’s the law.
The nature of the crime itself does not matter when it comes to the release of these reports, including arrests or incidents involving rape, murder, burglary, theft or any other crime.
Certain things may be redacted, but those exemptions to the Open Records Act must be very narrowly interpreted. It is reasonable and legal to redact such things as Social Security numbers, the names of informants or the names of rape victims, but heavily redacted arrest or incident reports are most likely very illegal.
The city of Roswell, in metro Atlanta, is embroiled in a lawsuit because the police department has a history of not releasing all incident and arrest reports and of heavily redacting reports it does release.
In short, they are breaking the law.
It doesn’t really matter what a department’s longstanding policy and practice has been. The law is the law.
If an agency is withholding reports it considers sensitive, not including narratives or supplements with released documents or heavily redacting those documents, it should stop those practices immediately and fully comply with the state laws that regulate the disclosure of law-enforcement documents.
If there are questions, we are happy to provide the full text of the law, but it is also readily available from the Georgia Office of the Attorney General or at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation website: gfaf.org.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a report on the lawsuit filed by Appen Media Group. The July 9 AJC article, written by Arielle Kass, quotes Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard Griffiths who said, “If you don’t know about crime in your own neighborhood, you do not understand what’s happening in your community,” adding that the law is very clear: police incident reports should be provided without delay and without redaction, with few exceptions.
We agree with Griffiths 100 percent.
This whole issue is about the public’s right to know.
We also caution our police department and sheriff’s office not to go down the Roswell road.
Release all — not most — arrest and initial incident reports, including the narratives and all supplements.
Release them as soon as they are available and do not redact a single thing that is not specifically allowed by the law.