Lawsuit: Atlanta Police refuse to comply with citizen videotaping procedures
'We've seen the worst-case scenario on several occasions'
A lawsuit demanding Atlanta Police to comply with laws protecting the public's right to document arrests — something lawyers allege the department has failed to do in recent months — today hit City Hall.
Two Atlanta attorneys, Dan Grossman and Albert Wan, have joined forces with the Southern Center for Human Rights to file a motion for civil contempt in federal court against city officials for not obeying the terms of a settlement and consent order in the 2011 case, Anderson v. City of Atlanta, et al.
According to the filing, APD allegedly violated Felicia Anderson's constitutional rights in 2009 by falsely arresting her as she took photos of her neighbor's arrest.
In addition to a $50,000 settlement with Anderson, APD agreed to revise its training procedures to ensure that officers don't interfere with residents videotaping police, provided that the person doesn't physically interfere with an officer on the job. Police officers are not allowed to "intentionally delete or destroy the original or sole copy any photograph, audio, or video recording of police activity" from the public, including those capturing the use of excessive force, according to the settlement terms.
SCHR Attorney Gerry Weber tells CL that the motion followed a rise in complaints surrounding Atlanta's string of Ferguson protests last fall. APD officers arrested two journalists — CL freelance reporter John Ruch and 11Alive photographer Tyson Paul — and allegedly interfered with Copwatch of East Atlanta videographers. Those incidents prompted SCHR to look into whether the city had complied with the terms of the settlement.
Weber says SCHR attempted to meet with city officials about the matter and sent a letter asking for proof of compliance. They mistakenly treated the letter as an open records request, he says. After dragging their feet on a response, Weber says, APD "tried to hastily train its cops" — something the department was required to do every other year, according to the settlement terms — but couldn't properly teach them due to the fact the department never fully revised its procedures.
"We've seen the worst-case scenario on several occasions," Weber says. "We've seen reporters and citizens arrested for attempting to film. ... Cameras are the truth tellers. They can't be contested. Body cameras are important, but citizens have to be able to videotape."
The lawsuit asks a judge to fine the city at least $10,000 per day until APD follows the settlement's terms. Moving forward, Weber says, the attorneys and SCHR want APD to be sanctioned until officials "do what they were required to do initially." If that training happens, Weber would like it to be independently videotaped to ensure proper training.
Multiple OPS and Citizen Review Board complaints have also been filed related to the legal motion, Weber says. Ruch has filed a complaint to the CRB related to his arrest on the night he was covering a Ferguson protest for CL. He continues to write for CL, but will not cover stories related to APD until the issue gets resolved.
We've asked the mayor's office and APD for comment and will update this story once they respond.