GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson approved a statement condemning the April 4 shooting death of Patrick Lyoya by a Grand Rapids police officer and saying her office would stop releasing information about his driving record but quickly backpedaled, interdepartmental emails released to News 8 show.

High-ranking officials in the Secretary of State’s Office sent out a press release April 15 that read:

“Statement on the killing of Patrick Lyoya and denial of further requests for his personal information and that of other victims of violence

“The Michigan Department of State condemns the killing of Patrick Lyoya. Moreover, the Department will no longer provide the driving record and personal information of Mr. Lyoya to the media, nor will it provide to media such records and information of other victims of violence. Unfortunately, the department provided Mr. Lyoya’s record to three media outlets before recognizing that it was being included as an irrelevant detail that wrongly suggests he is culpable for being shot in the back of the head by a Grand Rapids police officer.

“Additionally, the department will continue ongoing review and revision of the policies by which it provides the personal information of any Michigan resident to third parties. As we have stated previously, current Michigan law is very broad, and we believe the state Legislature should strengthen the law to demonstrate that they value the privacy of Michiganders over corporate profits. In the absence of legislative action, we will continue our own review.”

April 15 statement from Secretary of State’s Office

The emails obtained by News 8 Monday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show Benson approved the text of that statement before it was made public.

According to the emails, staff at the Secretary of State’s Office began discussing whether to continue releasing Lyoya’s driving record on April 14, 10 days after his death, as public outrage about the shooting was growing.

“I would like to discuss what flexibility we have when receiving records requests from the media,” Jake Rollow, chief external affairs officer for the Secretary of State, wrote in an email.

Rollow pointed to Michigan Code 257.208C, which covers the disclosure of personal information. The law allows news media access to certain information:

“(l) For use by a news medium in the preparation and dissemination of a report related in part or in whole to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety. ‘News medium’ includes a newspaper, a magazine or periodical published at regular intervals, a news service, a broadcast network, a television station, a radio station, a cablecaster, or an entity employed by any of the foregoing.”

In the email discussion, Secretary of State records employee Laura Lehman questioned that withholding information would be appropriate.

“I’m not clear on the legalities of us refusing the information to a news organization, especially one that has an account with us, to be frank. Note that we are not in any way commenting on the investigation, all we’re doing is interpreting the record,” she said.

The emails detail the discussion on the statement to release to the public and the various edits that were made.

In response to an email that contained the draft statement, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson replied, “This all makes sense to me. Thanks Jake.”

On April 15, the Secretary of State’s Office released its policy statement. That evening, Benson sent her staff an email saying that the first paragraph of the statement, in which the department condemned Lyoya’s death, was inappropriate and said that damaged the department’s nonpartisan role.

At the time, Michigan State Police were still investigating the death and its case had not yet been sent to the county prosecutor, whose duty it is to determine whether the shooting was justified or whether the officer should face charges. The prosecutor has still not made his ruling.

In her email, Benson added that it would be inappropriate to decide whether to release based on opinions about reporting.

“The entire first paragraph of this statement should not have been released. While we as individuals or I as a public leader may have my position and issue such a condemnation, it is not the role of the department to take a position on a matter that is the subject of an ongoing investigation. Similarly, in my view it is not appropriate for the department to subjectively release driving records to some media outlets and then refuse to do so for others because we disagree with how the information is being reported. We must have one single, objective policy that we all follow and that is clear to the public and to the press.

“Unfortunately in my view the above statement significantly harms the credibility of a
department that values being nonpartisan, transparent, and above the political fray. It is
appropriate to say we will review our policies of releasing data to ensure they strike a balance between transparency and protecting the privacy of Michigan residents.”

April 15 email from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson to staff

Benson also posted a series of tweets the night of April 15 indicating no policy changes had been made.

One day later, on Saturday, April 16, Benson sent another email calling for a meeting of those involved with the policy statement, calling it a “breakdown in procedures and protocol that led to yesterday’s unfortunate and wholly avoidable series of events regarding the department policy of release of drivers records.”

“You are all a collection of brilliant, thoughtful and well intentioned people of integrity who are a part of this team for a reason,” the Saturday email from Benson continued. “I have no doubt that each step that was taken yesterday was done with the best intentions in mind and with an eye towards doing the right thing and furthering truth, equity and justice. However errors in judgment and mistakes were made and we need to discuss them as a team to ensure we are aligned moving forward in this challenging time and that errors like this do not happen again.”

In releasing the documents, Rollow added a note that reads:

“Upon review of the attached file, I believe you will see that I mistakenly rushed what should have been a more deliberative process and failed to sufficiently brief Secretary Benson of the various ways to analyze the proposed policy change.”

Statement from Jake Rollow in FOIA response

The Secretary of State’s Office has not said if it will push for a change to law allowing the release of information.

*Editor’s note: The documents released in the FOIA response note that News 8 was the first news organization to request Lyoya’s driving record. News 8 did not report the information received from the Secretary of State’s Office on Lyoya’s driving record. Instead, we reported facts on Lyoya’s criminal record received from the Michigan State Police that we determined to be more appropriate and more in context with the story.