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

GRIFFIN - This is the continuation of an in depth series investigating interactions between the Griffin Police Department and the media. It would be helpful for readers to read Parts I and II prior to reading Part III which is based on an interview of Chief Yates of the Griffin Police Department.

Part I of this series presents a dilemma of press releases that were not being released directly to the press. This is against the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of the police department which states, “Press releases shall be prepared as required by the Public Information Officer and distributed to local Newspapers and radio and television.” You can read Part I of this series by clicking here: http://www.pikecountytimes.com/secondary/griffinpolicedepartmentpartI.html#.XaN-QX97l1s Part II details an investigation of requests for information between two Atlanta news media and that of the Griffin Daily News and The GRIP. The results show one local media agency that looks as if it is being targeted by the Chief and the Police Department (PD) for its articles in the community. You can read Part II of this series by clicking here.

Pike County Times chose to meet with Chief Mike Yates after initially saying no to his offer to hear his side of the story first hand. This interview took place in early April with no articles going online until a couple of weeks ago. Since this time, standard operating procedure (SOP) has been changed to directly target The GRIP. There have also been complaints from The GRIP of worsening behavior from the Chief and the PD including removal from the press email list and emailed list of daily reports from the PD. And disrespectful comments both to and about The GRIP and its owner and editor, Sheila Mathews, by Chief Yates have been noticeable for more than a year and seem to continue without consequence.

This shows a pattern of behavior that is continuing to get worse and has been a problem for a number of years. Where will it go from here? Much depends on those in authority over this department head and whether the city that appointed the Chief to this position is willing to look into this issue in depth and actually address a problem that could affect the city in more ways than one. But for now, an April interview will lay the groundwork for a summer of changes at the PD.

Press Releases

Chief Mike Yates began working for Griffin Police Department on February 1, 2016. He has updated the public information and media relations policy at the PD several times since then. The latest change was on May 16, 2019. Pike County Times addressed concerns about press releases not being released to the media and shared concerns with regard to treatment of the media in general.

The discussion began with press releases that weren’t being given to the press but were being posted on social media only. In Part I of this series, Chief Yates said that they used Facebook as well as sending out press releases but that the PD never quit sending out press releases. This is contrary to Pike County Times’ experience because a complaint about press releases only being on social media is what began a hard look at how news agencies interacted with the PD. This is detailed in Part I of this series. The PD then went with .jpgs (pictures) of press releases and then began sending out regular .pdf press releases again by email after addressing complaints from media members. This history as well as the history of LensLock are important parts of the following discussion that must be rehashed in able to understand the discussion that is to follow.

LensLock

LensLock is a California based technology company that provides body worn cameras and in-car video for police departments across the country including Griffin Police Department. Camera footage is uploaded to a cloud server that has a specific platform built for each department that can only be accessed by those in command staff who have been authorized to view, download, and share these videos.

LensLock uses a tracking system (somewhat like fingerprints) to show who viewed the data, what date and time, what IP address was used to view it, and who shared what camera footage with what email address. This cloud-based service makes the job of sharing body camera footage with a news agency very easy because the person in the command structure logs into the cloud, accesses the correct body camera footage, and then emails the link to the entity who requested it rather than having to download data to a disc and then the entity pick it up. This information is needed to understand the responses to the first set of questions from Pike County Times in this investigation.

Click here to read about LensLock.

Griffin Police Department is one of the first departments to use LensLock here in the State of Georgia. There were some issues with chain of custody and Open Records Requests around the end of January so the PD contacted LensLock and asked it to track who information is sent to because that wasn’t being tracked prior to this request.

“Most of the time when we get an Open Records Request from the press for these videos, they are really not subject to the Open Records Act because most of the time, those have not been adjudicated,” Chief Yates advised in this interview. “What we do is try to weigh the value of it and a lot of times, if we can send it, we go ahead and send it.”

He said that an example of this is the McDowell video when there was a big public interest so they sent it out to show that what was being said was not what happened. “There are times when I can’t,” he said, “but most of the time, we send it whether it’s subject to Open Records or not… We don’t have anything to hide.” Two examples of LensLock requests—with one being released and one not—are discussed at length in Part II of this series of articles.

There was an instance where The GRIP’s Sheila Mathews asked for and never received a link to a LensLock body camera video though every other entity who requested it had received it. When asked about this, Chief Yates advised that he put an email address into the system minus one letter, and she never received it. “I’m the one who sent it to her—or I thought that I did—as soon as she asked for it.”

He then said that the PD has also asked for a way to get a confirmation by email when an emailed link is opened. “We want that feature. It’s not there yet, but that should help us keep track of it in the future.”

Pike County Times noted that according to Open Records documents, Cpt. Natale sent the links to the other news stations but not to The GRIP. The question was asked repeatedly that if Capt. Natale sent this out to everyone else, why did Chief Yates send it to Sheila? Chief Yates said that he was the one who sent it out to The GRIP because he was the one who at the PD at the time. The chain of custody shows 7:15 a.m. according to Pacific Standard Time so it was 10:15 a.m. would be when the email was sent to Sheila. Chief Yates said that he and Capt. Natale are the only ones who can send out LensLock links in response to Open Records Requests.

According to Open Records documents from Part II in this series of articles, Capt. Natale forwarded the request from The GRIP to Chief Mike Yates at 10 a.m. on Friday, February 1 with a subject line that read “FW: Information.” According to the LensLock Chain of Custody Audit Trail also obtained by Open Records, Sheila sent an email to Capt. Natale at 4:43 p.m. advising that she had not received the link. Chief Yates said that he didn’t know about Capt. Natale’s email from Sheila at 4:43 p.m. but guessed the Capt. Natale didn’t respond to her because Capt. Natale probably assumed that the Chief had already done it.

He then said that the PD had “no obligation to send it to her whatsoever.” When Pike County Times responded, “But you sent it to Fox 5 and 11 Alive…” Chief Yates acknowledged that the PD had sent the link to them upon their request, but he then noted that these other media sources are “not in arrears on Open Records payments.” He also said that these other entities “have not produced material that we did not feel was correct.”

Since this interview, The GRIP was removed from the press email list as well as the emailed daily logs of PD activity in September of 2019. According to an October 15, 2019 article, City Manager Kenny Smith had Chief Yates reinstate The GRIP to both lists.

In fact, Open Records complaints from The GRIP against the PD and the City of Griffin go back more than two years with articles from June of 2017 entitled “City of Griffin, GPD Chief Yates refuse to release records on officer allowed to resign in lieu of termination” the-grip.net/2017/06/15/ and “City manager responds to Open Records stand off” the-grip.net/2017/06/29/.

Chief Yates then advised Pike County Times that none of those other media entities have filed multiple false complaints with the police department. [Note from the Editor: Chief Yates is referring to a series of complaints filed with the PD by Sheila Mathews of The GRIP in 2018 after she met with City Manager Kenny Smith to try to resolve the issue of media access with the PD. She was told that there wasn’t a way to address her complaints through the City so she filed complaints with the PD. Readers can read this article by clicking here.]

Chief Yates then suggested that Pike County Times look into these “false complaints.” Pike County Times has obtained these complaints by The GRIP concerning the PD and its alleged violations of its own SOP through Open Records and will review them at a later date as a part of this series.

The accusation that The GRIP is in arrears with the City of Griffin when it comes to Open Records was then discussed. Pike County Times has obtained this information by Open Records and will investigate it in depth at a later point in this series. Readers should be advised that Griffin PD has changed section 29.1.6 of its SOP to specifically address any media entity that is “in arrears with the City for monies owed for unpaid services such as open records request that have not been redeemed or resolved.” The policy, which was changed in May of 2019, continues by saying: “If any courtesy or request by persons who are not in compliance with this section is made by the individual, the courtesy or request may be denied and such courtesy or request may not be extended in any manner other than the actions and duties required by strict compliance with the Georgia Open Records Act.”

On October 2, 2019, Pike County Times requested a copy of “any and all documentation regarding any media entities that are in arrears to the City for open records from January 2017 to date.” Executive Secretary Teresa Watson advised by email that there is only one entity who has been sent emails regarding “accumulated charges” for unclaimed Open Records Requests and that is Sheila Mathews from The GRIP.

This documentation for $523.40 of alleged unpaid Open Records Requests includes a sticky note from the previous executive secretary with no original request or response for those 99 pages of documents as well as an extensive documentation between Mathews, Watson, and The Whalen Law Firm that provides representation to the City of Griffin. Griffin Chief of Staff Jessica O’Conner even advised on July 18, 2018 that Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo of the State Attorney General’s Office had issued a verbal opinion via telephone that the City did not have to respond to Open Records Requests from The GRIP until the amount of $523.40 had been paid in full.

Pike County Times has obtained information from an Open Records Request for “an electronic copy of any and all emails, letters, and other documentation pertaining to the City of Griffin, The GRIP newspaper, and its owner/editor Sheila Mathews from 2018 to date” dated October 19, 2019. This information, along with the Open Records information provided from the City of Griffin on this matter, will be addressed at a later part in this series.

Pike County Times has also sent an Open Records Request to the State Attorney General’s Office regarding “any and all emails, letters, and other documentation pertaining to the City of Griffin, The GRIP newspaper, and its owner/editor Sheila Mathews from 2018 to date.” Pike County Times is currently awaiting an estimation of all costs on this production as well notification of whether there will be any redactions on this information. “If there are any redactions whatsoever,” Pike County Times wrote, “there needs to be an explanation of why the Attorney General's office is redacting this information and not acting on it.”

In this April interview, Chief Yates acknowledged that Griffin PD is not the Open Records custodian and does not handle Open Records requests for the City of Griffin. “Over here in the police department, generally what we do other than sending out daily incident reports when someone asks, is we respond to requests for open records material from Teresa,” he said. [Note from the Editor: Executive Secretary Teresa Watson is the Open Records Custodian for the City of Griffin.]

Open Records Requests January through the End of March

The next set of questions was about the investigation into how media entities were treated. Part I of this series found that Fox 5 and Channel 11 asked for information and received it quickly. The Griffin Daily News received information fairly quickly though not as quickly as the Atlanta media. When The GRIP was mentioned, Chief Yates said again that The GRIP owed money to the City of Griffin for Open Records.

He then said, “All media outlets aren’t the same.” He said that they are not all equal and gave the reasons for that. TV media has different access times and deadlines. Print media have different deadlines and ways that they collect information as well as those who have online papers, etc. “It’s really not apples to apples because everyone has different needs.”

He said that without sending everyone the exact same information, there is really no way to treat everyone exactly the same way. He gave an example of someone putting work into a story, asking for info, and then asking if that person would be ok with that information being sent to everyone. He said that this was the reason they gravitated toward putting everything on Facebook saying that everyone would have access at the same time. He said that the PD generally responds to a request first and that they might send it out to everyone on the press list if it is needed.

When asked about Pike County Times’ question of whether he was aware that press releases had stopped being sent to the press, he advised that he was not aware of this. However, in Part I of this series, Pike County Times was advised 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. The word “if” in that sentences raised questions for Pike County Times.

He then went on to say that the PD deals with the Atlanta TV stations because we know that they are coming whether we want them to or not and that they are going to do a story if they travel outside of metro Atlanta. “So it is in our best interest to try to cultivate them and deal with them because no comment is a comment.”

Pike County Times advised that its investigation had found one media entity being treated differently than everyone else and that the Public Information Officer (PIO) Chris Wilson refused to speak to her except by email.

He noted that Section 29.1.4 of SOP states, “News Releases, Features, Announcements: Responsibility for planning, developing, writing and distributing information and articles about the program and activities of the department and its members rests with the Chief of Police. He pointed out the words “at my discretion” and said that there is “nothing in the Open Records Act that says that anybody has to do a verbal interview with anybody.” He even gave Pike County Times a highlighted copy of SOP to prove his point. (More on this at the end of the article.)

“The only thing that we HAVE (his emphasis) to do is respond to a lawful Open Records Request in the appropriate manner. That is the only thing that is required. We frequently go WAY (his emphasis) beyond what is required and we work diligently on our press releases and media contacts and things of that nature.” He then said that what falls under Open Records and media relations are two different things.

“We CHOOSE (his emphasis) many times to conduct business in a more comprehensive manner than what Open Records dictates, and I think that’s to our benefit and to yours (as in the media in general).” He also said that most of the time that he sends things out pretty quickly.

He said that the policy can be summed up easily and said that he wrote the policy and can change it any time he wants. “With the exception of what we are required to do by virtue of the Open Records Act, that policy can be written a number of different ways. And when it comes to investigations and release of information of that nature, it’s up to me as to how, when, and to whom it’s done.” [Note from the Editor: Remember this particular part of the article when reading Part IV of this series because that will be a discussion of old policy versus new, and it will be obvious that at least one section of the new SOP was written specifically with The GRIP in mind.]

Chief Yates then made a distinction between Open Records on one side and media relations on the other and emphasized that they are not necessarily the same even after Pike County Times pointed out that he has tied the two together by saying that there is $500 outstanding bill with the City of Griffin for a media entity that is not being treated the same as other media sources.

The question was then asked, “How does that affect the information that y’all put out if that doesn’t have to do with Open Records?” Pike County Times’ biggest concern throughout this interaction with Griffin PD is that actions to one member of the media will at some point end up affecting everyone else. His reply to this was, “You’re fully responsible for your conduct and the relationship that you cultivate with us is 100% up to you. But I assure that if you repeated the things that other entities have done, you would get the same results.” [Note from the Editor: I’m pretty sure that I am going to find this out first hand because this is exactly what I have done.]

He explained that the reason that Griffin PD went to an emailed interview with The GRIP rather a telephone interview is that “there is no question about what is said when we do it in writing.” He said that a lot of media entities choose to do email interviews. “If we offer and you refuse, that’s on you.”

Of course, several GRIP articles of late have contained sections that show the questions asked of the Chief, and he simply chose not to answer. In one case, he actually forwarded the questions contained therein to a competitor of The GRIP for reasons unknown. The following example comes from the end of Part II of this series of articles on Griffin PD and the media.

Chief Yates did not respond to The GRIP’s Sheila Mathews in her email from September 11, 2019 sent at 1:31 p.m. in which she questioned his actions. However, he forwarded a copy of the email to City Attorney Jessica O’Conner and City Manager Kenny Smith on September 11, 2019 at 2:01 p.m. with the following two sentences in the body of the email: “I am not going to entertain answering this foolishness. Just an FYI.”

Then two days later on September 13, 2019, Chief Yates used his iPhone to forward a copy of the original message with questions for The GRIP’s article as well as the forwarded message to O’Conner and Smith to Karen Gunnels of The Griffin Daily News with the word “FYI” in the body of the email. Open Records do not show where Karen responded to the forwarding of an email from a competing media entity that questions the actions and authority of the police chief by the police himself.

Readers can read The GRIP’s October 11, 2019 article entitled, “GPD Chief says questions about his actions are “foolishness” by clicking here.

Chief Yates continued his point about cultivating a relationship with the PD by saying, “As long as you conduct yourself professionally with us we will always conduct ourselves professionally with you. But if you don’t, we will only do what we are required to do.” This word “professional” will come up again in the changes made to the SOP for media relations. Look for this in Part IV of this series.

Chief Yates reiterated that Sgt. Wilson generally does the job of PIO but that he and Capt. Natale do as well.

At this point in the interview, Pike County reiterated that it got involved with Griffin PD and media complaints because it looked like no one else was saying anything, and the thing that was cultivating all of this was that everyone wasn’t being treated the same.

Chief Yates said that it was done with the best of intention so everyone could have equal access. He said that he finds that FB is unreliable. There is a good portion of the people who don’t operate by Facebook. It’s not just FB. They don’t want to be involved in community events or news period. Pike County Times has found this to be the case with some as well.

Chief Yates summed up his thoughts on this entire interview by explaining that when we say “media,” it’s a “mixed bowl.” For our purposes, he said, when we try to be equitable with it, it’s impossible because of all the ways we have to handle business. He said that was the catalyst for putting it on Facebook as a way to give equal access to everyone.

He then closed out the interview by saying that everyone that he has spoken to said I was reasonable and would do my homework.

Doing Homework and Following Up on the Interview

Pike County Times reviewed SOP after the meeting and looked for something specific that clarified the Chief’s discretion in how the media was treated. In this email, Pike County Times asked Chief Yates to point out the specific policy or procedure that “allows you the discretion to determine the methods by which information is provided to specific reporters or media outlets.”

He answered by directing Pike County Times to Section 29.1.4 which states, “News Releases, Features, Announcements: Responsibility for planning, developing, writing and distributing information and articles about the program and activities of the department and its members rests with the Chief of Police.” He also pointed out that “the policy does not specifically dictate the manner, format, method, frequency or mechanism for the release for information nor is there any requirement that requires or even allows for a media representative to demand contact or information in any particular fashion, means or time frame only that a mechanism for contact exists.”

He then went on to say in this email that the Open Records Act does have “certain parameters in relation to the release of information but nowhere in the Act is there a requirement to interview, answer questions or formulate responses other than to produce existing documents subject to disclosure under the act.” He closed by saying that generally and other than Open Records Act requirements, information is “released or exchanged based on efficiency, integrity of information, timeliness and effectiveness to accomplish our law enforcement priorities FIRST with respect to prosecution, protection of the innocent, and to insure (sic) the accused right to a fair trial is not compromised. Media contact, entertainment, and information exchange with parties that are not part of the incident is secondary.”

This emailed response was sent to Pike County Times that same afternoon and carbon copied to both PIO Chris Wilson and Griffin City Clerk Teresa Watson. This is pretty standard for Chief Yates so Pike County Times has no complaints about this. However, Chief Yates used his cell phone the next day to forward both Pike County Times’ original emailed questions as well as his carbon copied response to Karen Gunnels from The Griffin Daily News. The body of the email simply said “FYI.” There was no response from The Griffin Daily News found in this series of Open Records. [Note from the Editor: There is a series of questions in Part II that asks some questions about why this might have been done as well as an opportunity afforded to the Griffin Daily News to respond based on the email. The Pike County Times email was forwarded to the Griffin Daily News several months before Chief Yates did the same with The GRIP’s emailed questions for an article.]

Closing

Pike County Times felt compelled to investigate and report on this matter because the treatment of one media entity could easily become the treatment of another—especially when the Chief said that repeated behavior by a separate entity “would get the same results.” Pike County Times has been vocal that treatment of one can become the same for any or all of the rest of the media. In essence, silence implies consent.

Pike County Times is going to close on this article with many of the same questions from the first two parts of this series and a reminder that all of the paper evidence in this article can be duplicated through Open Records Requests through the City of Griffin. Some of these questions will be answered outright, and others will have to be answered by the reader after reading through this entire series of articles.

Other questions include whether or not SOP is being followed in an impartial manner by the Griffin PD with all news outlets and why this is important. After all, all news outlets must be able to work with the PD in order to obtain information from incidents that occur in the Griffin community. From obtaining the daily reports of events that go out from the PD each day to being able to interact with the PIO by phone and/or email, professional interaction is necessary for a good working relationship.

Further questions include: Is the Atlanta media is being treated in a manner different than that of the local media? Chief Yates gave reasons in this interview for how the Atlanta media was treated compared to the local media. Parts I and II of this series explain examples in depth that were found through Open Records as Pike County Times investigated this situation.

Is The GRIP being singled out for special treatment by Chief Yates and the Griffin Police Department? Facebook interactions and emails show that there is a definite problem of some sort between The GRIP, Chief Yates, and the Griffin Police Department. Chief Yates gave his opinion on this, and only the reader can decide whether this treatment is justified. A change in policy that is targeted toward The GRIP will be in Part IV of this series of articles.

In closing as it has been said before, a single action does not constitute consistent behavior, but consistent behavior can be proven by actions that continue or get worse over time. The change of standard operating procedure that appears to directly target The GRIP, complaints from The GRIP over worsening behavior from the Chief and the PD including removal from the press email list and emailed list of daily reports from the PD, and disrespectful comments about The GRIP by Chief Yates to various people over the past several months show a pattern of behavior that is continuing to get worse.

Who has authority over an appointed department head in the City of Griffin? Are those in authority aware of the situation between The GRIP and Chief Yates? And has any of this behavior been addressed by those in authority? A search for “Chief Yates” on The GRIP’s website at https://the-grip.net/ will show a number of articles regarding Chief Yates and even his immediate supervisor, City Manager Kenny Smith that goes back more than one year including allegations of Open Records Act violations, release of Facebook messages, an Internal Affairs investigation, and a general tug and pull between the press and a government agency that must abide by its own standard of operation as well as state law regarding the release of information to the media.

Has similar behavior targeting a newspaper reporter been an issue in Chief Yates’ past? A simple web search will show that the answer to that question is yes. One article of note is from The Arkansas Times in 2014 entitled, “Mayor suspends Jonesboro police chief 30 days without pay for comments about reporter” that can be accessed by clicking here.

There are still many questions that need to be asked in order to find out exactly what the press is dealing with in the City of Griffin. The answers to these questions will help to determine what is needed in order to ensure that any wrongdoing is punished, any “misunderstandings” are clarified, and procedures are put in place to ensure that current behavior does not continue.

Part IV will examine Standard Operating Procedure and changes that have been made since this interview was given in April. It will examine a series of emails between The GRIP, the PD, and the City of Griffin showing where The GRIP was removed from the press list and daily activity logs lists and then was reinstated.

Pike County Times will also investigate the allegation that The GRIP owes the City of Griffin more than $500 for Open Records Requests and has asked for intervention from the State Attorney General’s Office. There were also Internal Affairs complaints that The GRIP was forced to file with Griffin PD since there did not seem to be a way to file a complaint through the City of Griffin concerning a Department Head.

There is a lot to this story that has been building for a period of years. At this time, there are probably two more articles that are needed to dig into information concerning the information in the preceding two paragraphs. Since an Open Records Request has been placed with the Attorney General’s Office, it will likely take more than a week to gather information for the next article.

Stay tuned to Pike County Times for Part IV.

10.22.19
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