Ingham County Commission upholds denial of FOIA request for Sheriff pursuit policy
January 27, 2017
Only two Ingham County Sheriff officers have died in the line of duty, both in single-car accidents while speeding. Sergeant Paul Cole was travelling 90 mph on the way to a domestic violence incident when he crashed in October 1996.
Deputy Grant Whitaker was travelling between 110 and 120 mph in pursuit of a speeder when he crashed in December 2014.
In December, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Ingham County Sheriff’s Office General Order No. 240, which addresses the operation of department vehicles. It was one of the exhibits in the trial of John Kelsey, the driver of the white SUV Grant Whitaker was pursuing when he crashed. My request was denied because the Act exempts staff manuals provided for law enforcement officers or agents.
I appealed to the Board of Commissioners. I said that although I accept that the FOIA exempts staff manuals for law enforcement officers or agents, FOIA does not prohibit those materials from being released to the public. I said I'd like the commissioners to read General Order No. 240 themselves and decide whether there is anything in it so sensitive that the people of Ingham County could not be allowed to see it.
My appeal was on the agenda for the January 24 Board of Commissioners meeting. I was unable to attend. At the recommendation of the Appeals Committee, the full board upheld the denial. The vote was unanimous. There was no discussion, although someone did ask if I was present. No one mentioned my request that the commissioners read the policy themselves and decide whether there is anything in it the public could not be allowed to see. You can see a video of the January 24 meeting here. My appeal is discussed at about 7 minutes in.
The letter formally denying my appeal presents arguments beyond the fact that the FOIA exempts staff manuals provided for law enforcement officers or agents. It says that the manual
I do have a copy of General Order No. 240. I got it after I'd submitted my appeal of the FOIA denial. It was mailed to me from St. Louis Correctional Facility by John Kelsey, who is there serving 25-40 years for fleeing and eluding resulting in death.
Reading the 11-page document, I didn't find anything in it that a criminal would find useful in planning a getaway. What I did find, however, is an expectation that officers use caution and good sense. These excerpts are from page 1:
In the case of Grant Whitaker, the pursuit went on for a full 6 minutes at speeds over 100 mph. In the following video from the dashcam of Whitaker's fellow deputy Richard Hoekstra, Hoekstra begins the pursuit in the lead. Whitaker, in a marked car, passes him at 3:36, at which time there is no sign of the vehicle being pursued. Hoekstra passes what turns out to be Whitaker's exhaust system in the left lane at 7:02:
Clearly, apprehension could not be made "quickly and at a reasonable speed." The professional approach would have been to break off the pursuit. Nevertheless, Whitaker got a hero's funeral, while Kelsey got the blame and a 25-40 year sentence.
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