Two Chelsea Residents Sue the City of Chelsea for Withholding Citizen Complaints and Police Disciplinary Records
Two advocates for racial justice have sued the City of Chelsea for denying their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for complaints and disciplinary records associated with five officers who ticketed Black Lives Matter protesters during the summer of 2020. The advocates, Theresa and Kerry Plank, are among the 29 Chelsea residents that the Chelsea Police Department (CPD) charged with “impeding traffic” during the demonstrations. A judge later dismissed the charges on the ground that the police officers violated the First Amendment rights of the protesters.
The Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School is representing the Planks in their suit.
“In order to restore public trust between the police and the Chelsea community, it is critical that the Chelsea Police Department be transparent about its officers’ misconduct,” said Kerry Plank. “We hope this case will result in improved public safety in our community as we move forward together.”
After police officers killed George Floyd and other Black Americans during the summer of 2020, a group called Anti-Racist Chelsea Youth organized several peaceful marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in Chelsea. Chelsea police ticketed 29 protestors, including the Planks, for “impeding traffic” while participating in these protests. Although Chelsea City Council voted unanimously to recommend that CPD dismiss the tickets, former Chelsea Police Chief Edward Toth refused to do so. Ultimately, 14A District Court Judge Anna M. Frushour dismissed the civil infractions on First Amendment grounds.
The City of Chelsea hired two firms to conduct independent investigations into CPD’s response to the protests. The first firm concluded the Department’s response had led to “escalating cycles of reciprocal mistrust” between CPD and the Chelsea community. Similarly, the second investigation found “a measure of distrust and dissatisfaction regarding transparency and engagement of the agency,” as well as “a lack of empathy and compassion on the part of CPD.” It concluded that “[t]ransparency about police conduct is critical to building and maintaining trust between officers and residents.”
In May, the Planks submitted a FOIA request with the City of Chelsea asking for citizen complaints and records of disciplinary action against five CPD police officers and former Police Chief Edward Toth. They believed the requested documents would shed light on the Department’s procedures with respect to citizen complaints and officer discipline.
The City denied the request for records about the officers, citing a FOIA provision that allows the police to keep such records secret “unless the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure in the particular instance.”
On November 8, the Planks filed a FOIA lawsuit in Washtenaw County Circuit Court for the documents. According to the complaint, the FOIA exemption cited by the City does not apply because of the strong public interest in improving police transparency and accountability in Chelsea.
“The goal of the lawsuit is to increase police accountability and promote transparency when it comes to police misconduct,” said Rachel Moore, a student attorney with the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative. “Given the community’s demands for safe and transparent policing, the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs the department’s interest in keeping disciplinary records secret.”
For a copy of the complaint, click here.