The Atlanta Objective: The Cases
I want you to look at what police write when they come across a murder. This is the anatomy of an initial incident report.
“On Saturday, July 11, 2020 at approximately 11:37 pm Atlanta Police Officers were dispatched to an accident with injuries on I-285 south bound at the Benjamin E. Mays Dr. overpass. Upon arrival, they located a male deceased inside of a black vehicle in the far-left lane. The male had gunshot wounds to the legs and head. The Homicide Unit was advised and responded to the scene. CSI processed the scene at the direction of Homicide Detectives. The body was removed at the direction of the Fulton County Medical Examiner's office.”
This is the narrative from the initial incident report 201931599-00, filed by Officer Ronald Sluss, of the murder of Rudolph Simmons Johnson. It’s terse. We get the home address listed on Johnson’s drivers license. We get the make and model of the car he was in: a black 2019 Cadillac CTS owned by Gregory Session.
We do not find the name Lil Marlo anywhere on it.
The drive-by murder of the up-and-coming rapper made international headlines and raised serious questions about escalating violence in Atlanta’s music scene. But in the first hours and days of a case, police say only what they’re really required to about a crime where the public can hear it.
By law, the police are required to produce an “initial incident report” every time they respond to a crime. These reports exist to provide transparency to investigations: a public acknowledgement of police activity. They’re a tracking mechanism.
The Georgia Open Records Act, O.C.G.A. § 50-18- 70, allows police the discretion to withhold investigative records during a pending investigation or prosecution, and to withhold records that would disclose the identity of a confidential source, the existence of confidential surveillance or investigation, or confidential investigative or prosecution material which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person.
“Most exemptions to the Open Records Act allow law enforcement to withhold certain information from public inspection, but they do not require it,” says the Blue Book, A Law Enforcement Officer’s Guide to Open Records in Georgia, which is produced by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “Accordingly, law enforcement may choose to share such exempt information to the public or the news media even though the Act does not require disclosure.”
The Blue Book is a bible for crime reporters: it is, as the legendary AJC editor Thomas Oliver put it, the set of guidelines that every chief of police in Georgia has signed off on. When some local agency flouts the law on disclosures, a reference to the Blue Book is where the argument starts.
Police interpret those exemptions to disclosure broadly. But none apply to an initial incident report, which is always releasable.
It’s also, usually, where news reporting begins and ends on a crime. It’s why the story of Atlanta’s continuing violent crime increase is a parade of disconnected snippets, news blurbs about a shooting here or a body found there, without a lot of discussion of why, or how to prevent it.
At my request, the Atlanta Police Department sent me the initial incident reports for every homicide in the city from January of 2020 to April of 2021. I’m posting a link to those files for you.
I’m giving you homework for the weekend.
Look through these cases. Pick some at random. See which ones the AJC or Fox 5 or another media outlet followed up on after the initial incident report.
Over the next week, I want my readers to tell me which of these cases deserves a deeper look. I’ll use the recommendations of subscribers as the starting point for meaningful storytelling.