Judge orders media access to police photos

 August 14, 2002 | Chattanooga Times Free Press (TN)

 | Page: 15 | Section: Metro/Region
543 Words | Readability: Lexile: 1380, grade level(s): >12

A spokesman for the Chattanooga Police Department said an appeal is "quite likely" after a ruling that the city provide WTVC-TV and other media organizations access to the personnel file photos of six police officers.

However, police department spokesman Ed Buice said the department's attorney, Shelley Parker, has not reached a final decision on an appeal.

Hamilton County Chancellor Frank Brown issued a ruling Tuesday in a lawsuit brought by WTVC NewsChannel 9 after the city denied a request for the photos of six officers involved in the traffic stop of Torris Harris. Mr. Harris died shortly after fighting with officers and a civilian who assisted them after being stopped on Foust Street on Dec. 26, 2001, according to testimony.

The Hamilton County medical examiner's office listed the cause of Mr. Harris' death as "blunt neck compression." A police department investigation has cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing.

Several law enforcement groups, police officers and media organizations, including the Chattanooga Times Free Press, became parties in WTVC's lawsuit, arguing the case pits the right to privacy against the freedom of speech and the press.

Chancellor Brown issued his decision after testimony at a July 31 hearing. He ordered access to and a copy of the six officers' photos by noon on Sept. 17, unless an appellate court stays his order.

In his opinion, Chancellor Brown said police officers, as public servants and employees, surrender certain rights in the job.

"A ll who bear such a designation, whether police officers or not, are set apart and are subject to different rules than the public at large or those in private employment," Chancellor Brown wrote.

Steve Hunsicker, news director for WTVC, said the right to information extends to more than the media.

Rick Hollow, attorney for the Tennessee Press Association, said access to records gives the public the information to make decisions. "Any time there is a decision which favors public access it benefits everyone, not just the TV station who might seek the records," he said. "It is a recognition that under our form of government, the people are the source of the power."

At the July 31 hearing, several officers testified of threats made against them and their families. They said the posed photos in their personnel files could allow someone to study their features and better identify them for potential harm.

Chancellor Brown wrote there was no evidence the officers involved in Mr. Harris' stop would be subjected to substantial harm or death if their photos were published or broadcast. He also said there are ways other then a photograph that a person seeking to harm an officer can find him.

Phil Noblett, who represented the city, and Jerry Tidwell, who represented the Southern States Police Benevolent Association and four officers, said Tuesday they were reviewing the ruling to decide if an appeal would be filed.

Mr. Tidwell said the Legislature should consider an exception to the Tennessee Open Records Act in which the release of an officer's personnel file photo would be disallowed.

Chancellor Brown's ruling, said there might have to be other means taken if an officer is to be truly protected. "At that time all officers and their families would probably have to live in separate forts or gated areas manned by armed guards," he wrote.

E-mail Kimberly Greuter at kgreuter@timesfreepress.com

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