For more than a year, jail officials in Pottawatomie County have denied The Frontier access to records from one man’s death after a struggle with detention officers.
So The Frontier filed a lawsuit on Monday against the public trust that oversees the jail. The lawsuit seeks to force the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center Trust to release surveillance video and other documents in connection with the death of Ronald Gene Given.
Given, 42, was in the throes of a mental health crisis and died after jailers restrained him at the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center in January 2019. The state medical examiner’s officer ruled Given’s death a homicide, but no one has ever faced criminal charges in connection with his death.
Given’s aunt, Eva Given Kopaddy, filed a federal lawsuit in December that claims surveillance footage from the jail show that a detention officer held Given down by pressing a knee on his neck, which ultimately caused his death. A district judge ordered the release of the surveillance footage to Given Kopaddy and her attorneys in May, but only under seal, meaning it will not become public record.
“What happens inside Oklahoma jails — taxpayer-funded holding facilities for thousands of people who are presumed innocent — is a matter of importance for everyone in the state, particularly when a situation ends as tragically as it did with Ronald Given,” said Dylan Goforth, executive editor of The Frontier. “Kassie has worked diligently for more than a year trying to uncover exactly what happened to Ronald Given because Oklahomans deserve to know why and how he died.”
While the Oklahoma Open Records Act requires public bodies to provide the public with “prompt, reasonable” access to records, the Pottawatomie County Public Safety Center has refused to release video and any incident reports from Given’s death for over a year.
Frontier reporter Kassie McClung first faxed an open records request to the jail in November 2019 asking for documents relating to Given’s death, but staff said the facility only accepted in-person requests.
So five days later, McClung drove 100 miles from Tulsa to hand-deliver her request to the jail’s administrative offices in Shawnee.
But jail officials continued to refuse to provide any records other than the most basic documentation of Given’s time at the jail. The officials claimed other information, including surveillance video that would shed more light on Given’s struggle with jailers before his death, is exempt from the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
Detention facilities in the state frequently claim surveillance footage is exempt from Oklahoma’s Open Records Act. Jail administrators have frequently cited an exemption making the disclosure of some law enforcement records optional, allowing them to shield surveillance video of prisoner deaths from public view.
KatieBeth Gardner, a Tulsa-based attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is representing The Frontier in the lawsuit.
Jail officials have provided no legitimate basis to withhold the records The Frontier has requested, Gardner said.
“A ruling in favor of The Frontier and Kassie McClung would send a message that public bodies in Oklahoma, including detention facilities, should follow the requirements of the Oklahoma Open Records Act and promptly release public records upon request,” she said.