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Griffin Police Department and the Media - PART I
By Editor Becky Watts

GRIFFIN - Pike County Times has covered news for Griffin and Spalding County when time allowed over the past several years. This investigation began because the Griffin Police Department (PD) began issuing press releases only on Facebook and not to the press at the end of January of 2019. The policy has since changed, then changed back, and then changed again, but lately Griffin PD has begun issuing regular press releases to the press again.

In the course of this discussion over whether something can be called a “press release” if it is not issued and sent to the press, Pike County Times decided to investigate whether there was a difference in how the local and Atlanta media were treated.

Multiple open records requests were placed with the City of Griffin containing the words 11 Alive and Fox 5 for two of the members of the Atlanta press and Griffin Daily News and The GRIP for members of the local press. Special attention was paid to who responded to emailed requests for information as well as how quickly that information was given to those who asked for the information.

Background

Press releases being released to the press through email is an issue that many departments are dealing with these days. It is easy for a Public Information Officer (PIO) to put something on Facebook and wait for the press to either pick it up and run with it or call with further questions, but the policy of Pike County Times is to only cover what is sent by email from actual law enforcement agencies and not pull from Facebook because social media can be hacked, and Facebook is not a legitimate source of news compared to having a press release directly emailed to Pike County Times. An email (or text message) from a law enforcement agency has a chain of custody that can be determined immediately with no question.

Normally, an agency either emails a press release if one has already been written or an officer who is authorized to speak the press will give details about incidents by phone or text when a member of the press calls for information. This easily establishes a chain of custody for information that gives credibility to both the department and members of the press who ask for specific information.

Public Releases and the Local Media

On December 28, 2018, a public information piece was placed on Facebook offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the suspect involved in several armed robberies in Griffin on December 26, 2018. Pike County Times did not receive that press release so a private message was sent through Facebook to Griffin Police Department advising that Pike County Times does not pull information from Facebook and that it might be much more effective to send out a press release to the press than just upload to Facebook since everyone does not have Facebook. There was no response to this private message.

On February 1, 2019, a press release that was not released to the press was placed on Facebook regarding an arrest of a suspect from New York who was charged with firearms and drug trafficking and held on an outstanding warrant from New York. Pike County Times asked publicly on this post how this could be press release if it wasn’t sent to the press and noted that this made four posted “press releases” that had not been sent to the press. Pike County Times is on the PD’s press email list and has been for a long time.

Public Information Officer (PIO) Chris Wilson responded through what Pike County Times originally thought was a fake Facebook page named “Wilson Griffin” by saying: “Ms. Watts, we put our press releases on our Facebook page so that ALL media outlets have fair access to our information at the same time. We do so to make sure we treat the legitimate press, the local press, the bloggers and even those who claim to be the press equally. We do this because some have falsely claimed they were treated unfairly thus our current method...” [Note from the Editor: There will be more about another questionable Griffin PD Facebook page later in this article.]

Another response on that same post said, “Ms. Watts, I can assure you that the only information that The Griffin Police Department released is the above Facebook post on our page. This information is the only information that we have released to date on this matter. Our intent in publishing this information is to inform the public. Our desire is to work in accordance with the press to ensure that the information is passed on in a fair and balanced manner. The Griffin Police Department and the PIO are devoted to building on our existing relationships with the press…”

On February 1, 2019 at 8:54 p.m., Pike County Times contacted The City of Griffin through Facebook Messenger and asked the following: “Why is someone with a fake profile speaking for City of Griffin PD on their FB page? That does not look professional at all.” Pike County Times was advised by the City of Griffin that “Its (sic) not a fake page. It’s a new page. The PIO is new to Facebook and is just not (now) setting up his personal account. From now on he will be responding through the GPD page. He was promoted to Public Information Officer this week and he wasn’t quite set up to respond through the official page but he wanted to go ahead and answer your question. We apologize for the confusion.”

Within a matter of minutes, the situation was cleared up and the responses were coming from the City of Griffin Police Department rather than a Facebook page that did not clearly indicate who was responding. When asked if there were any other concerns, I responded: “I have other concerns about releasing part of the press releases online and some news stations from Atlanta getting info that local media doesn't seem to have, but I am asking that question of the PIO (I assume that it is the PIO who is the admin on the GPD FB page) to ensure that I didn't miss a link to the bodycam footage that at least one Atlanta media station had that I didn't see on the FB page because I could have missed it. My biggest concern here is that it looks like GPD is trying to control who has information and who doesn't and if only some media outlets are getting ALL of the info then the City of Griffin as well as the City of Griffin PD has a problem that will come back to bite everyone and y'all don't need that. If the City of Griffin will monitor the PD to ensure that they are being "fair" to everyone--and by that I mean truly being fair to everyone and not just giving lip service because it sounds great online--I'll step back from this...” I also advised that I do not pull information from Facebook so until this policy was changed, I could not unload any articles for the PD. [Note from the Editor: There will be more on this particular set of Open Records information including the body cam link that had complaints lodged against the PD for how the dissemination of evidence was handled. More on that in Part II.]

Response to Questions and Facebook Only Complaint

It was during this interaction that Pike County Times was advised that that Griffin PD had changed its PIO but the name of the PIO was not revealed on Facebook Messenger so Pike County Times sent an email to Lt. Daniel Jett on February 1 to find a way to reach the new PIO and ask how a press release could be released to the press unless it is actually sent to the press. Pike County Times put forth the argument that everyone doesn’t have Facebook and hoping that the press will see posts on Facebook is “poor PIO policy for the PD.” Pike County Times also asked if there had been a change in policy with regard to press releases or if it was being excluded from press releases. This email was prior to an emailed GPD notification to the press of the identity of the new PIO on issued on February 5.

Chief Michael Yates responded by saying that there are “multiple PIO’s” in the PD, and that Pike County Times could be added to the list of press contacts if that was needed. He also advised that the PD does not always email information and press releases to the press “but occasionally we do.” He continued by saying, “We have found that it is easier and more equitable to post the material on our Facebook page so we do not get accused of playing “favorites” with the press as some of our local outlets have claimed. In fact, one or more of our local outlets have “demanded” equal access and this is why we post to our Facebook page first, and sometimes follow up with an e-mailed release.”

Chief Yates also said that there have been occasions when a new or inexperienced PIO might not have used the entire press contact list or press contacts were left out of press releases because they changed their emails and did not advise the PD of the change “which caused them to feel shunned or left out.”

He then said that the PD’s current practice is post to Facebook first and then follow up with a release by email if it is deemed appropriate, and he reiterated that this practice would continue.

He then welcomed Pike County Times to come by his office so he could address these concerns directly “so that you can get your answers straight from me and not through second or third parties who might not be giving you the full story.”

Pike County Times responded by saying, “From the tone of your voice in this email and that of the statement released on Facebook this weekend, it sounds as if you have a problem with the local press… and that you are doing a whole lot of assuming about me when you have never met me.” The Chief was informed that Pike County Times was on the press list and had received press releases for quite some time, “whether or not you have a problem with other local press in the area should not affect how you respond to me and my newspaper,” and that this new “release by Facebook policy” is not how other agencies work with the press because it appears that the PD is having a problem dealing with the press in general and that doesn’t look good for the PD.

Pike County Times thanked the Chief for the offer to come by the office and speak to him but declined to do that “until I see a change in attitude toward the press in general.” It was added that Pike County Times was not interested in speaking with someone who is going to spend time “justifying a new policy by running down local press in the area” because if the Chief will run down other members of the press, it will happen to Pike County Times at some point too.

Pike County Times closed this email by saying that it would just like to do its job covering the news in this area without the current roadblock that prevents it from giving good public relations (PR) to the PD and officers with this new Facebook policy. It was stated that this policy is a problem for press agencies that have to pull from Facebook and then follow up with the PD, it is a problem for the PD in general because everyone doesn’t have Facebook.

Chief Yates advised in his final reply on this set of emails that no one was “running down the press” and that he was sorry that Pike County Times felt this way. He advised that Pike County Times hadn’t met him either and gave that as the reason for offering to meet face to face. He said that the offer was still open if Pike County Times chose to act on it. Pike County Times said no at that time but asked to meet with Chief Yates for a recorded interview after pulling together its findings from Open Records. This interview will be the topic of Part III of this series of articles.

Notification of Change of PIO

On February 5, an email was sent to local media agencies (the Atlanta media was not included) advising that Capt. Michael Natale was no longer the acting PIO and that Sgt. Chris Wilson was the acting PIO. Local media sources from Spalding, Pike, Lamar, and Upson Counties were advised of his email and office contact information. He also provided his cell phone contact information when it was requested by an Upson news media representative. This all follows standard operating procedure with the media that will be detailed in the next article in this series.

The media was advised by Capt. Natale at that time that: “The Griffin Police Department is constantly evolving and wants to maintain an open relationship with the media. If there is anything we can do to make our relationship better, please don’t hesitate to let us know.” A terse discussion then took place over a couple of weeks including both email and Facebook regarding press releases that were not being provided to the press. A point to note is that a search of press releases at that time found PIO Chris Wilson’s name on Facebook press releases for over a month prior to this official notification.

At one point, local members of the press were told to refer to the PD’s Facebook page for information and that no further information would be given directly to the press. This is in direct opposition to Chapter 29.1.4 of the PD’s standard operating procedures (SOP) which read as follows: “Press releases shall be prepared as required by the Public Information Officer and distributed to local Newspapers and radio and television.”

Readers can read through the entire Chapter 29: Standard Operating Procedures: Public Information/Media Relations dated 7/31/17 that was in effect at that time by clicking here: GPDSOPChapter29PublicInformation7.31.17.pdf. Chapter 29 has since been updated and will be included in later in this series of articles.

When Griffin PD was confronted about press releases not being sent to the press, Sgt. Wilson stated, “Ms. Watts, we put our press releases on our Facebook page so that ALL media outlets have fair access to our information at the same time. We do so to make sure we treat the legitimate press, the local press, the bloggers and even those who claim to be the press equally. We do this because some have falsely claimed they were treated unfairly thus our current method. Thank you for your concern and please let us know if we can help you further.”

However, the PD reevaluated policy and sent out press releases on February 16 in the form of a .jpg (picture) that could not be cut and pasted and had to be retyped each time a press release was received. (Pike County Times is among those who complained.) Members of the local media (the Atlanta media were not included in this email either) were advised that “…The purpose for the change is to preserve the authenticity of the official document. It is my job to disseminate true and accurate information to the citizens of Griffin, as well as all media and press outlets.”

Further discussion led to press releases being emailed in .pdf format to members of the local media just as has done in the past with a hearty thanks from members of the local press.

Posting to Facebook

According to emails obtained from the City of Griffin, Citizen Engagement Specialist (CES) Brian Miller posts Griffin PD press releases to the PD’s Facebook page only. Sgt. Chris Wilson asked CES Miller to post a February 1, 2019 press release to all of the social media pages and was advised that the City usually only posts PD press releases to the PD Facebook page.

Sgt. Wilson said that he was told that the PD posts press releases to the Spalding Discussion and other pages as well. He then said that he was new to Facebook and that he guessed that people on Facebook shared the posts.

Since this time, Pike County Times has noted that there is at least one page that Griffin PD is using to share information on Facebook pages much like the Griffin Wilson page that responded in an official manner on Griffin PD’s Facebook page. The “Griffin Holmes” account is currently being used to share Griffin PD press releases on various community and discussion pages. It has a picture of Griffin PD’s logo on the top of the page with no clear indication of who the particular person is posting on the behalf of Griffin PD. [Note from the Editor: Photos at the bottom of the page added on 10.14.19.]

An Investigation Begins

The comment about members of the media complaining of being treated unfairly prompted Pike County Times to conduct an investigation of the Griffin Police Department's interaction with the Atlanta and local news media. A series of Open Records requests were made for any and all emails sent from FOXTV, 11Alive, Griffin Daily News, and The GRIP sent to Capt. Natale, Sgt. Wilson, and Chief Yates of the Griffin Police Department from January 22 through March 20, 2019 to evaluate if there were differences in how the PD responded to these specific media entities. More on that in Part II of this series of articles.

After those Open Records requests had been fulfilled and the material was examined, Pike County Times decided to meet with Chief Mike Yates. Pike County Times Editor Becky Watts met with Chief Yates at his office on April 1, 2019 to discuss the results of this investigation and talk about PD media policy. This will be the topic of Part III of this series.

Closing

Pike County Times read through 2½ months of emails with some important questions in mind. Are Atlanta and local news entities are being treated relatively the same? And is there any news agency that has been singled out for treatment that is different or more stringent than any other media agency? Is Griffin Police Department abiding by its own media policy when it interacts with members of the press?

It’s one thing to hear or read about a complaint. It’s another to see facts in black and white so you can make your own decision about whether or not a complaint is justified.

The final question from this series of questions that will be asked is, “Why does any of this matter?” As a member of the public reading this news article, that will be an important question to ponder. This question is even more important to ponder for any member of the press that is required to obtain information from the Griffin PD in order to report news to the local community.

This series of articles was slated to be placed online in early April, but extenuating circumstances prevented publication at that time. Since that time, Chief Yates has changed how the PD interacts with the media by updating Griffin Police Department Standard Operating Procedures Title: Chapter 29 Public Information/Media Relations. These changes will be addressed in Part IV of this series of articles, and readers will be allowed to compare old and new policy.

Part II in this series will be released on Monday, October 14, 2019.

10.7.19
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