Judge eyes suit over open records - WTVC NewsChannel 9 was denied access to the photographs of city police officers involved in an arrest where a suspect died.

August 1, 2002 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)
 | Page: 9 | Section: Metro/Region

609 Words | Readability: Lexile: 1370, grade level(s): >12

 A judge has taken under advisement the case of a Chattanooga television station suing the city for access to photographs of police officers.

After hearing about eight hours of testimony Wednesday, Chancellor Frank Brown said he would issue a written opinion at later date. Several local police officers, groups representing them and media organizations have become involved in the case, arguing that it pits the issue of officer safety and privacy against the public's right to information.

WTVC NewsChannel 9 filed suit after requesting in January the photos of six Chattanooga police officers involved in the traffic stop of Torris Harris, who died shortly after police attempted to take him into custody. The request was denied, and a later request by the station for photos of all Chattanooga police officers except those working undercover also was denied.

A police department report issued in May cleared the officers in the Torris Harris case of any wrongdoing. The report stated the police officers and a civilian who assisted them fought with Mr. Harris for 10 minutes while he resisted arrest on Dec. 26, 2001.

Chief Jimmie Dotson testified he made the decision not to release the photos because of a potentially volatile situation after officers and witnesses involved in the stop had been threatened.

"I made that decision simply as a safety issue for the officers and the officers' families," he said.

Officers testified in Chancery Court on Wednesday that there was information Mr. Harris was affiliated with a gang. They said a retired officer saw suspected gang members buying ammunition and talking about attending an upcoming wake the day before Mr. Harris' wake was scheduled.

Steve Hunsicker, news director for WTVC, said the station has on its own, and by request, not shown images of officers.

"We try to make a smart decision on that and listen to anyone who makes that request," he said.

He also said station officials told Chief Dotson they would delay airing the photos of the six officers involved in the Harris incident as long as the police department provided them as requested.

Mr. Hunsicker said using pictures helps TV stations in airing their stories and that the police department had complied with previous requests to provide officer photos.

Attorneys for the media organizations argued that images of officers can be obtained in other ways, including on the police department's Web site and while officers are testifying in court or at a crime scene.

But several officers testified that the posed photos in their personnel file are different. Officer Justin McCommon, who was involved in the Harris arrest, testified that any individual, not just the media, could study his photograph and harm him or his family.

"I don't want to be able to be quickly recognized. That would enable for me to be recognized from a block away," he said.

Sgt. Edwin McPherson, who was not involved in the Harris stop, testified he was threatened after his image appeared in the media and no longer can do undercover work.

"Because I was recognized by people, for my safety, they pulled me off," he said.

Shelley Parker, legal adviser for the Chattanooga Police Department, testified that when WTVC requested the photos in January, the criminal investigation into the Harris incident was not complete and not all witnesses had been interviewed.

He also said if photos of officers are released, they could sue the city, under a 1998 appellate court ruling.

"It was a tough situation for the city to be in legally. Morally, it wasn't so tough, protecting the officers' safety," he said.

Mr. Parker said there was no willful refusal to deny access to the information, in violation of the Tennessee Open Records Act.

E-mail Kimberly Greuter at kgreuter@timesfreepress.com

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