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Appeals court orders release of police officers' photographs

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Appeals court orders release of police officers’ photographs

  • The Chattanooga Police Department must turn over photos of officers involved in a controversial case because an exemption to the state’s Public Records Act protecting personnel information on undercover officers does not apply, an appeals court rules.

Oct. 17, 2003 — The photographs of six police officers cleared of allegations of wrongdoing in the death of a criminal suspect are public records and should be released to a local television station, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled last month.

In affirming a trial court’s ruling, the three-judge panel held Sept. 29 that photographs of the officers, from the Chattanooga Police Department, are not exempt from the state’s Public Records Act. An exemption to the act for personnel records of officers designated as working undercover would not apply, the court said. It noted that all six officers in this case were in uniform at the time of the incident.

The case arose after WTVC News Channel 9 requested photographs from the Chattanooga Police Department of the five officers involved in an altercation on Dec. 26, 2001. According to court records, after Torris Harris was stopped for a traffic violation, he fled his car and led police on a foot chase. The officers finally caught up to Harris, 21, and placed him in a choke hold that left him unconscious. Efforts to revive Harris were unsuccessful, and he was later pronounced dead.

An internal inquiry by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

In addition to the five officers directly involved in the incident, WTVC also sought the photograph of the officer who prepared the official police report, which had come under some scrutiny in the internal inquiry.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, the Tennessee Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors joined WTVC in the lawsuit.

Richard L. Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association, says he and his colleagues were thrilled with the appellate court’s affirmation.

“Each time you have any sort of decision that limits the public’s right of access,” said Hollow, “you weaken, what I consider, the fundamental underpinnings of American government.”

(Henderson v. City of Chattanooga; Media Counsel: Alan Johnson, Willis & Knight, Nashville) VR

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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