A police department in the eastern U.P. has been ordered to release its full policy on the use of force after failing to convince the state appeals court that portions should be concealed from the public.
The court noted that Amy Hjerstedt’s request in Sault Ste. Marie followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020.
“Michigan has a strong public policy favoring public access to government information,” Judge Sima Patel said Tuesday in a 3-0 opinion.
“Although certain information may be exempt from disclosure, the statutory exemptions are not intended to shield public bodies from the transparency that FOIA was designed to foster,” Patel said, referring to Michigan’s public records law.
Sault Ste. Marie, population 13,400, gave Hjerstedt a heavily redacted copy of its policy. The redactions centered on use-of-force considerations and other strategies.
“This has been an issue throughout the state, throughout the nation,” Hjerstedt’s attorney, Mark Dobias, told the appeals court on Jan. 10. “If people don’t know, how can they discuss how to improve use of force?”
Police Chief Wesley Bierling said releasing the information could affect the safety of officers and the general public. A Chippewa County judge subsequently ruled in favor of the city.
Exemptions in Michigan’s public records law “are designed to keep the public partially in the dark when it’s appropriate to do so,” Karen Beach, an attorney for Sault Ste. Marie, told the appeals court.
But not in this case, the court said this week, pointing out that other police departments have posted their force policies online.
“The city could not produce any particularized evidence that the availability of these policies has resulted in endangerment of the life or safety of law enforcement officers, their families or the general public,” Patel wrote, joined by judges Stephen Borrello and Douglas Shapiro.
The court sent the case back to Judge James Lambros to release the force policy, award attorney fees to Hjerstedt and determine whether Sault Ste. Marie should pay $1,000 in punitive damages.