EXCLUSIVE: Griffin Police Department manipulated public records, used civic group to “keep the minority community at bay”

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

In an organized effort, the city of Griffin and Griffin Police Department have engaged in the selective release of public records to manipulate the responses of Black residents to law enforcement uses of force and other GPD activities.

At the same time, Griffin officials have refused to release those same records to The GRIP.

This practice began under the leadership of GPD Chief Mike Yates and former City Manager Kenny Smith. The selective release of information continues now under current City Manager Jessica O’Connor.

The GRIP Publisher Sheila Mathews first became aware of this practice in late 2020 following an incident at Griffin High School (GHS) in which two students, one male and one female, were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, felony obstruction of a law enforcement officer and disruption of a public school.

Soon after this incident, members of Urban Outreach Association (UOA), a Griffin civic organization, announced that its then-newly formed Griffin Citizen Review Board (GCRB) had received a complaint against GPD officers involved in the Griffin High School incident and would be investigating.

“We are aware of the incident that occurred at Griffin High School. Citizen Review Board will be begin an investigation and keep everyone updated (sic all),” read a statement posted on the UOA Facebook page.

UOA members later reported having met with GPD Maj. Homer Daniel to discuss the incident and said they were also permitted to view officers’ body worn camera footage from the GHS incident.

This led to the UOA GCRB issuance of a letter seeking disciplinary action against Cpl. Chris Webb, “a reprimand to include possible termination or retraining.”

Meanwhile, Mathews first sought permission to view the officers’ body worn camera recordings directly from GPD Chief Yates. Yates ignored that request which led to the submission of a formal Open Records request to the city of Griffin.

The city of Griffin refused to release those recordings to Mathews, citing an exception in the Georgia Open Records Act that permits certain law enforcement records to be withheld until the criminal case has been adjudicated.

Mathews argued that by releasing the video footage to Urban Outreach members, the same record could not then be legally withheld from The GRIP or any other requester.

This led to a December 2020 meeting involving Mathews, former Griffin City Manager Kenny Smith, current City Manager Jessica O’Connor, who at that time served as city staff attorney and deputy city manager, and Griffin Mayor Doug Hollberg.

Smith acknowledged the Police Department was engaging in the selective dissemination of public records and explained why.

“…We have simply used them (Urban Outreach Association) to try to keep the minority community at bay when we’ve felt like we had operated correctly under our policy,” Smith said.

Smith, who said he had not participated in the GPD/UOA meetings, said the distinction in the November 2020 GHS incident is that UOA was not treated as the press, but rather its members were present as “representatives” of the students.

“At least my understanding of the distinction in that particular case is that Urban Outreach…were pretty much there on behalf of…the people who were arrested, in regard to use of force and determining how those students wanted to proceed as far as filing complaints against police officer,” Smith said. “To me, that’s different from any press or whoever coming in there and just wanting copies of stuff for a news release, so I hope that you were treated exactly the same as any other press members but not exactly the same as the parents and their representatives of those students, which, I believe by a stretch, Mr. (Reggie) Watts and Mr. (Dexter) Wimbish were doing that on their behalf.”

Citing the UOA’s professed investigation, Mathews said, “I have a hard time understanding why that meeting is allowed – why information is shared under those circumstances – but the press is told no, no meeting whatsoever.”

Smith replied, “Well,  I have a hard time understanding what right they have to be an organization who investigates,” to which Mathews responded, “And that’s a question you would have to ask them.”
Smith then stated, “They have not been recognized as a citizens review board. They have not been recognized as anything formally where they investigate our officers any more so than my grandmama coming in and saying she wants to investigate an officer. We investigate our officers and obviously, if that investigation is outside of our purview, then we would call in the GBI to investigate our officers. What we try to do is negotiate with Mr. Watts and some of his representatives who may or may not be formally Urban Outreach to keep down problems within the community if it pertains to some race relations issue and the possibility of use of force against an African American or whomever they represent or purport to represent.”

Smith later expounded on the GPD’s and city’s involvement with other meetings of this nature.

“Now, other than this incident, I can tell you that there have been other instances where we have had issues with minority community members where they (UOA) have come in and looked at body cam and that kind of stuff to try to squelch uprisings and things like that,” Smith said. “So, not only do they use us, but we use them to try to keep segments of the community calm in certain situations, but we do not treat them as the media and we do not give them, other than we let them hey, look at this body cam, you know, this is, in spite of all the rumors out there, this is what actually happened, but we don’t give them reports and investigative paraphernalia for them to do an investigation.”

Mathews made clear that she was not seeking preferential treatment but sought only to receive equal access to public records.

“I’m not asking for additional information that they’re denied; I’m asking for the same information. That’s all I’m asking for,” she said.

“I understand and I will admit that I think we’re walking a very fine line by giving them access to information that we’re not giving the press. That’s my opinion,” Smith said, adding that the city “probably needs to get an expert legal opinion on how to move forward with Urban Outreach because they have also purported to now have put together a civilian review board…”

When told that the Citizens Review Board is who met with GPD officials regarding the GHS incident, Smith said, “I don’t know who particularly, but I know it was representatives of what they call Urban Outreach. Other than Reggie Watts, I don’t know who all that involves. I know Dexter Wimbish…reports to be their legal counsel from what I hear and read. But the city does not recognize them as any investigative arm. We have simply used them to try to keep the minority community at bay when we’ve felt like we had operated correctly under our policy.”

“And my position is that it’s the job of the press to report the news,” Mathews said.

“Right, which is different from what we’re using them for,” Smith responded.

Publisher’s note: This article was first delayed while awaiting the expert legal opinion of which former City Manager Kenny Smith spoke. I then spent the majority of 2021 on hiatus as I tended to important family needs. During that time, Kenny Smith retired, and Jessica O’Connor was named city manager. I requested and was granted a second meeting with Mayor Doug Hollberg and Ms. O’Connor in December 2021. The legal opinion was again discussed, and Ms. O’Connor said it had not been obtained, but she would address it. The GRIP then again contacted Ms. O’Connor twice in 2022 – in January and February – and that legal opinion was ultimately sought from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office. That will be the subject of another article in this series.
Although this article specifically addresses a meeting held in late November 2020, it bears relevance to systemic issues still ongoing in the city of Griffin.

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