THE PLEASE DEPARTMENT
|By Neal McNamara|
Some reasons it might be harder to get access to public information from your local police department.
Three Mondays ago, a paraplegic medical marijuana user from Meridian Township — or so he described himself — called me and said that he had been robbed at gun point in his home in the middle of the night by three armed “black guys.”
The man did not want to give me his name, but he described the home invasion this way: He was sleeping, naked, on his couch very, very early on a Sunday morning when the men barged in waving guns. They demanded his money and his medical marijuana, which they eventually found and allegedly stole. They also took a Fender Yngwie Malmsteen Stratocaster (apparently, the burglars knew a $12,000 guitar when they saw one) and some other musical equipment. Further, he told me that when Meridian Township Police showed up, they confiscated his remaining medical marijuana. Between the burglars and the police, the man told me, his planned medical marijuana growing co-op was devastated.
True, untrue, or grossly exaggerated, the man had a story. The timeliness of the medical marijuana issue, the fact that Meridian Township police allegedly confiscated the medical marijuana (under state law, you can possess 2.5 ounces and 12 plants), and the bizarre nature of the home invasion made the man’s story of interest.
When I got off the phone, I immediately called up Meridian Township police and asked to speak to the public i n f o r mation officer, Lt. Greg Frenger. But what happened next turned the story from a guy who got robbed of his medical marijuana to yet another example of how authorities constantly thwart the public’s right to know — a problem not just with the Meridian Township police but throughout Ingham County (with some exceptions) that I’ve discovered in covering the Greater Lansing scene for the last two and a half years.
When I asked Frenger if he could confirm and give details about the incident, he told me, “No comment.”
I did not ask for names of suspects or confidential informants, I didn’t ask for Social Security numbers or for private photos of the victim — I asked, as any reporter or member of the public has the right to do, for the basic facts of a situation that involved public resources (the police department, who knows what else).
I pleaded with Frenger to simply confirm that there was a home invasion and that police were investigating.
“Yeah, we’re not going to comment on this,” he told me on a second phone call.
In one more attempt to shake something loose, I e-mailed Frenger and several of Meridian Township’s leaders with an example of a press release I had received from a different police department. But no one, from Township Supervisor Susan McGillicuddy, Clerk Mary Helmbrecht, Trustees Brett Dreyfuss, Elizabeth LeGoff, Lynn Ochberg or John Veenstra, responded to the e-mail. And certainly not Frenger.
So, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request. Personally, I don’t think I and any member of the public should have to invoke state law, wait 10 days and pay to find out about something their government did. But I did it — and the results were no better than Frenger’s “no comment.” (On a followup call, McGillicuddy, who is a Republican challenging state Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, said she did not have time to talk, but would call back. She never did, Nor did she respond to a follow-up email.)
After more than two weeks, a FOIA request, a flurry of e-mails and a conversation with Meridian Township Chief David Hall, I’m no closer to finding how police responded to the alleged incident on Van Atta Road on June 17.
Since my interaction with Lt. Frenger, I have embarked on a quest to find out if the situation is similar at other area police departments. Do police departments willingly hand over information to the public, or do you have to pull teeth? I found that police departments think that giving out arrest information is a violation of a person’s privacy, and that no department in the area makes a detailed log of police activity available to the public. The days of reading about all the arrests and crimes — significant, silly and mundane — in your local newspaper are over. Now, you have to use to state law to get that stuff.
The Bard speaks
Stratford, Conn., is a community of about 50,000 straddling the Housatonic River and the Long Island Sound. It is the home of attack helicopter company Sikorsky Aircraft and is between rundown Bridgeport and affluent Milford.
A couple of years go, at my first reporting job, I would daily go down to the Stratford Police Department and take a gander at their activity log, or blotter. It was just a manila folder with a bunch of police reports inside. The cop at the administration desk would hand it over and you could peruse it for anything newsworthy. I never knew of this happening, but I am sure members of the public could go and look at it, too.
Stratford’s system was not exceptional in Connecticut. All the departments I knew did the same. Later, when I worked in Anderson, Ind., it was the same deal: police incident reports in a manila folder at the front desk (in fact, Indiana state law specifically states that these records must be continuously made public).
But it’s not like that in Michigan, at least in the Lansing area. I found that out when, on one of my first days at City Pulse in 2008, I went down to Lansing Police headquarters to look at the blotter. I was stared at like an alien and told by then-public information officer Lt. Bruce Ferguson I could call him and he would dole out information, but a FOIA would be required for everything else.
Last week, I called Lansing’s new PIO, Lt. Noel Garcia, and asked him why I could not get detailed information on arrests or police activity, like a blotter, without filing a FOIA.
“There’s a law that says what can be released and what can’t with specific information on suspects until they’ve been arraigned,” Garcia told me. “I know that, I was provided a copy of that law by (Ingham County) Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings.”
The law that Garcia seems to be talking about is not actually a state law, but a rule that governs the conduct of attorneys and prosecutors. It’s called the Michigan Code of Professional Conduct, and it was put into effect by the Michigan Supreme Court in the early 1990s. Rule 3.8 (e) states that a prosecuting attorney must "exercise reasonable care to prevent investigators, law enforcement personnel, employees, or other persons assisting or associated with the prosecutor in a criminal case from making an extrajudicial statement that the prosecutor would be prohibited from making ... ."
Though police departments in Ingham County are under no direct threat from this rule, Dunnings is. So, he points to that rule as a reason departments don’t just hand out information. But there is no automatic punishment for violating the rules, said Dawn Parker, director of professional standards at the Michigan State Bar Association.
"The police themselves aren’t subject to the rules, they’re not lawyers. It’s (Dunnings’) obligation to take these seriously," she said. Someone could report Dunnings to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission if he were suspected of violating any of the rules of conduct.
Dunnings told me that it is his preference that the names of all people arrested be kept confidential until they are arraigned — the general public gets the information, he said, just not instantly as it would reading a police blotter.
"The information will be made public. The information is not being delayed," he said. "The only people concerned about getting the information now is the billion-eyed beast of the media."
Dunnings says that he does not order that police departments resist giving out arrests or other information ("We are consulted," he told me. "They’re an independent agency and their decision is their decision”), but let’s the departments know his opinion — and that’s to let most information come out during court proceedings.
"The rules of professional conduct puts the onus on prosecutors to communicate (how to release information) to police. It’s in the interest of fair trial. It’s in the interest of ongoing investigations," he said. "It’s not as though the information will never come out. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when."
You might not recognize Herschel Fink’s name right away, but you’re probably familiar with his work. An attorney with Detroit’s Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn, he may be the state’s preeminent First Amendment lawyer. He has represented filmmaker Michael Moore and the Detroit Free Press as it was facing Kwame Kilpatrick in court over some text messages.
He’s also an author of a very handy online guide for reporters (and the general public) about the release of police information in Michigan. I asked him if there’s any law in the state that prohibits police from releasing information without a FOIA.
“We do our best to give as much as we can without compromising investigations,” Stressman said.
Lansing Township issues a similar report on its website, but did not have information available at the station.
Though, some were hesitant whether arrest information should be public before an arraignment.
The chief of Okemos speaks
“Our goal is to solve crimes and protect victims,” he said. “There is a fine line that we follow.”
Referring to Baechler’s effort to set up a medical marijuana grow business, he said: “The police and these thugs broke it up!”
(City Pulse intern Jane Alexander contributed reporting for this story)