GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids appeals board has upheld a decision not to release more information about a secretly recorded police phone line and the purging of those calls.
The recorded calls from Line 3407 were discovered as officials looked into how three Grand Rapids Police Department officers handled a November 2016 wrong-way car crash involving a former county prosecutor who had been drinking. Recordings exposed how the officers worked to downplay the crash and avoid giving the former prosecutor a breathalyzer test.
In May of this year, despite pending Freedom of Information Act requests to save them, the city purged all the recordings from the line. Even after that, they could have been recovered within a certain number of days. The city made no attempt to do so.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the all of the recordings and for all emails about them since May 24, 2019, when a judge ruled that the recordings did not violate officers’ rights.
The FOIA request was in part granted and in part denied, with huge chunks of emails between city officials blacked out. The ACLU was fighting the denial, arguing the city’s reasons for the redactions were too broad.
“The decision before you is: Do you believe in open government or do you believe that city officials should be allowed to destroy records that are of great interest to the public before knowing who was involved and why they decided to destroy those records?” ACLU attorney Miriam Auckerman said during a Monday morning meeting of the Grand Rapids FOIA Appeals Committee, which is made up of city commissioners.
The city brought in an outside lawyer to review the issue. The city argued that the reasons for the redactions, which included attorney-client privilege and frank communication, outweigh the public interest of the calls.
“Applying the FOIA exemptions is a little bit of science and a little bit of art, if you will. FOIA coordinators might not always agree on exemptions,” an attorney for the city of Grand Rapids said.
The FOIA appeal board unanimously upheld the FOIA coordinator’s decision to in part deny the request.
“I think it goes without saying that this is again a very weighty issue because of the times we are in and yet I understand the parameters in which we have to work with in as members of the FOIA Appeals Committee,” City Commissioner Joe Jones said. “So I will make a motion to uphold the FOIA coordinator’s decision.”
His motion passed unanimously.
Jones said the City Commission as a whole will take up the issue to see if any changes should be made to the FOIA process or retention timelines.