It’s been just over a month since a Ferguson police officer gunned down an 18-year-old man in the middle of the street in broad daylight as numerous witnesses watched in horror, later telling the media that Michael Brown died while holding his hands in the air.
After waiting 24 hours, figuring there was no video footage of the actual shooting, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson called a press conference and claimed that Brown had attacked officer Darren Ferguson, placing him in fear for his life, leaving him no choice but to fire his gun several times.
And over the ensuing weeks, that claim evolved into all kinds of speculation and manipulation of the truth, much of it debunked, not that it put a stop to people continuing to spread the misinformation through social media.
But during that time, Photography is Not a Crime’s Charlie Grapski has been filing endless public records requests to the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments to cut through the speculation and arrive closer to the truth, only to be continuously denied. We also sent PINAC video producer Taylor Hardy to Ferguson last month, who conducted some on-the-ground interviews you can see in the above video.
Grapski, who is heading PINAC’s new Open Records Project, has now retained a lawyer who will be filing suit against both the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments over refusal to comply with public records laws. After all, there are still many unanswered questions.
This is something we plan to continue doing in the future as PINAC undergoes a dynamic transition that is laid out in our executive summary.
Although he has raised enough to retain the lawyer, thanks to an in-depth article published Sunday in Salon, we need to raise more money to fight this all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court.
“Public agencies in this country, particular law enforcement agencies, are not respecting public records laws,” Grapski said. “And this case is the highest profile case yet where the entire world is watching.”
“If we can enforce this law, that sends out a message to the rest of the country that we can do this in their neck of the woods.”
So this is just not about Ferguson but about every incident in which cops refuse to comply with public records laws, including Albuquerque, which we are also working on.
Grapski, who set up the funding site for Ferguson here, stated the following on the site:
This case is of extreme importance to all members of the public for three significant reasons:
1) It is necessary to obtain the records and evidence in this particular case to ensure that justice is served, a full investigation and prosecution is undertaken, and public officials and police agencies are held to account for their actions in the death of Mike Brown and cover up of the officer’s and agencies’ actions.
2) It is vital to ensure the public has a right – now and into the future – to obtain any and all Incident Reports of police agencies in the state of Missouri.
3) It is essential to the public, its right to know, and its ability to hold government agencies and officials accountable under the law that the Sunshine Laws – and in particular the Public Records laws – of each state are recognized, respected, and enforced.
Grapski, who joined PINAC earlier this year, has a long history of fighting for public records and has paid the price for it as he explained in this article.
A few months ago, we sent him to Albuquerque to look into the rash of citizen killed by police. However, even though he has filed numerous public records requests to investigate the shootings in Albuquerque, they have completely ignored his requests, daring us to take it to court.
We would if we could raise the money for a lawyer, which is why we set up the PINAC Fund where tax-deductible donations can be made (in the top right-hand corner of the site).
Through his investigations, he learned that several witnesses had photographed and video recorded the incident involving the death of James Boyd from their homes, which led him to filing a request for a single photograph from one particular witness.
“They told me my request was overbroad and burdensome and that they couldn’t produce it in the required timeframe,” he said.
That was three months ago. The normal time frame in that state is within three days, much less for a single photograph.
But he has not been able to find a lawyer in New Mexico willing to sue the Albuquerque Police Department unless they receive a large chunk of cash.
In the Ferguson case, Grapski obtained a lawyer who agreed to take the case for a $2,000 retainer, which he raised, as well as minimal costs as it progresses, which should not exceed $15,000, even though it would normally cost $150,000.
According to the Salon article:
The ACLU, though a thorn in the side, is part of the legal system. Working through the courts is the lifeblood of what they do. But Grapski’s approach is more of an outsider’s one—and thus, more blunt. Thus, he unabashedly points out that both Ferguson and St. Louis County police have clearly broken the state’s open records law by holding back incident reports about the shooting, which should have begun with a report by the officer involved, Darren Wilson, while Ferguson is also withholding a use-of-force report, which should have been generated by Wilson’s commanding officer and gone up the chain of command all the way to the chief. Grapski has posted highly detailed accounts of both failures in two blog posts at PINAC (incident reports, Aug. 25/use of force reports, Aug. 29), with extensive documentation, including pdfs of relevant rules and regulations, as well as the correspondence involved. (More on these below.)
“Ferguson is deliberately violating both the laws and its own policies to prevent any information from being produced and made public that could be used to hold Officer Wilson to account for his actions,” Grapski wrote in the Aug. 29 post, and he repeated this in interviews with Salon.
“They are committing criminal offenses themselves,” Grapski said of both police departments’ public records violations. “It’s not a high crime, but it is class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to year in prison, and a pretty significant fine, by withholding, by knowingly not complying with the public records law. The records law has teeth, and that is it has criminal sanctions.”
Rothert told Salon something similar, but slightly different. “From what we can tell right now it looks like the Ferguson Police Department never did an incident report,” he said, “which would be contrary to their policy, it would be contrary to the law, and quite, quite suspicious, not to take even an initial statement from someone who’s killed another person.”
Grapski believes the report was created, but then buried. Originally the ACLU was told that the report existed, but that it could not be released due to the bogus claim that it was an investigatory document (which it is not, under Missouri law). However, it may take a trial, with full discovery, to finally settle the matter of what was created when. Either way, however, the police have not followed procedure, violating both their own internal policies and Missouri state law. Is there a sinister conspiracy involved as well? Or is this just business as usual? Or does business as usual include and promote sinister conspiracies as a matter of course? These are the questions raised by the ongoing cover-up of public records surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, and the ongoing protests as well.