Some of the most common open records request are for police records.
Georgia residents have myriad resources available to them when it comes to obtaining important information related to the criminal process.
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, in cooperation with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, has published a booklet called “Georgia Law Enforcement and the Open Records Act,” which offers law enforcement personnel a comprehensive guide to open records and best practices to ensure transparency between policing agencies and the general public, as well as the news media.
The 38-page manual has been approved by organizations like the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, Georgia Department of Law, Georgia Press Association, Georgia Public Safety Training Center, the Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia and encourages members of the law enforcement community to acquaint themselves with the Georgia Open Records Act, and to use the booklet for guidance.
For example, the publication gives abridged bullet points with attribution to each specific code section that regulates things like the release of accident reports, incident reports and matters involving juvenile offenders and victims.
Submitting an open records act is easy enough and requires the same oversight in law enforcement agencies as any other government entity — citizens can just contact the records custodian at the agency. Usually, particularly in smaller departments, a telephone call or informal email will suffice. Some agencies may ask the person making the request to fill out a form.
Members of the news media and the general public alike can also use the guide as a quick-reference tool to understand their rights under the Georgia Open Records Act.
For the most part, the news media has the same rights to public documents as the general public, but there are a few exemptions to that rule.
For example, while citizens have restricted access to motor vehicle accident reports, the members of the media may obtain copies of accident reports for the purpose of news gathering. Otherwise, a records custodian may ask the individual making the request to complete a “statement of need” which outlines the purpose of the request.
Meanwhile, all initial incident reports are public record. There has been some confusion in the past over whether reports involving the particularly vulnerable — juvenile victims, victims of sex crimes, or victims of domestic abuse when no arrest was made — should be released to the public, but no exemption has been added to the state’s Open Records Act to follow that model.
There is, however, often information contained within initial incident reports that may be redacted by the agency providing the documents. Personal information, including Social Security numbers, day and month of birth and an individual’s mother’s maiden name are all examples of information that can be kept private in the interest of protecting a person’s identity.
Confidential records concerning reports of child abuse, grand jury testimony and classified inmate files are some common documents law enforcement officials handle, but are mandatory exemptions from public disclosure.
In Henry County, Ga. Police Sgt. Joey Smith and his colleagues in the department’s Internal Affairs division handle hundreds of open records requests each year. As the department’s public information officer, Smith is involved in day-to-day media relations and often is responsible for determining whether a document is public or private.
The number of reports fielded by the department’s Records Division, however, numbers in the thousands, Smith said.
“Some challenges we face are providing information that may be sensitive to a criminal case or personal information that witnesses or victims would not wish the public to view,” he said. “We strive to be as open as possible to accommodate the public with any information requested, which meets the requirements of the Act.”
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation publishes its materials on the organization’s website at http://www.gfaf.org. In addition to the guide for law enforcement officers, booklets that prove useful for citizens and people interested in how the law affects the Georgia education system are available in PDF format on the website.