Contrary to the public interest: Questioning the police

DENVER - In 2002, Denver resident Terrill Johnson was driving home from work as a Frontier Airlines mechanic when Denver police officers followed him to his house and arrested him. Johnson, who is black, believed he was profiled because he was driving a Cutlass -- a car sometimes driven by gang members.

"They arrested me," Johnson said. "Basically assaulted me and put me in jail."

He was charged with a series of traffic violations and inferring with police. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he filed a complaint with the Denver police Internal Affairs Bureau. A year later Johnson learned that some of his allegations were sustained, but officials refused to let him see the full report.

"They hide behind their cloak of secrecy which is, 'contrary to the public interest,' and that's the phrase I notice that they use over and over and over again," Johnson said. "Anytime someone goes to get their records released they use the same phrase."

Tom Kelley, president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and a partner in Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, said that standard -- "contrary to the public interest" -- can work against citizens' interest in knowing what government is doing. Kelley's firm has represented 7NEWS and The Denver Post in open records cases.

"It's a terrible standard," said Kelley said. "It gives the custodian the right to decide basically whether he wants to disclose the record or not."

Legal experts say cases like Johnson's are difficult to win, but not impossible. Johnson won his case for the IA report and was eventually awarded $75,000 for false arrest.

Johnson also received $24,000 -- taxpayer money -- because a judge found the city improperly withheld the records.

If a government agency improperly withholds and the person requesting the records prevails in court, the agency must pay the requestor’s attorney fees, according to state law.