Full Disclosure

 A City Paper reporter usually walks into the Charleston Police Department (CPD) once a week to jot down details from recent incident reports for the next issue’s Blotter, a weekly feature that highlights some of the odd things encountered by police.

But in October 2021, our reporter was turned away — the result of some kind of apparent mix-up. But it was clear that it was more than a mix-up over the next three months, which included lots of phone calls and emails with lawyers about state public records laws until this week when we were again granted access to the reports.

All the while, the City Paper news team kept wondering: 

How many local law enforcement agencies are actually following the state Freedom of Information Act?

All 50 states and the federal government have public records laws, and South Carolina’s is not much different than most. Adopted in 1978, the law governs everything from when and how public notice must be given for meetings to what information collected by police must be made public.

Among the provisions in the S.C. law is Section 30-4-30(D), which lays out four different types of records that “must be made available for public inspection and copying during the hours of operations of the public body, unless the record is exempt … without the requestor being required to make a written request to inspect or copy the records when the requestor appears in person.” 

The law is crystal clear: Records must be furnished, without strings attached, to any member of the public who asks.

Those records include: the previous six months of meeting minutes, three months of jail logs, six months of documents produced by a public body and at least 14 days of criminal incident reports.

“Police reports for the previous 14 days are to be made available for inspection and copying at the police department office without the necessity of a written request when the person wishing to view the records appears in person,” said Jay Bender, a retired Columbia media attorney.

City Paper’s snafu with CPD came up after the department was reevaluating policies following the retirement of Charles Francis, its longtime public information officer — it was Francis who handed over the clipboard with a stack of reports when our reporter visited each week.

The paper has since come to an agreement with CPD to gain access to the reports with a city lawyer’s redactions — and to avoid expensive litigation. But South Carolina media attorneys and the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) agree: Charleston Police Department is not following the letter of the law on police incident reports.

‘When in doubt — disclose’

The state’s Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. FOIA, published in partnership with the South Carolina Press Association, plainly interprets the FOIA law to mean two weeks of “records containing basic details of a crime” must be kept “ready for immediate access.”

Separate letters from Gov. Henry McMaster and Attorney General Alan Wilson advise good government must include transparency and accountability.

“As public servants, we should always endeavor to maintain the public’s trust and confidence in their government. In that spirit, I hope you will remember ‘When in doubt — disclose,’ ” McMaster wrote.

“We have an obligation not only to adhere to the letter of the law, but also live up to its spirit through compliance with every reasonable FOIA request without delay or obstruction,” Wilson wrote.

But informal checks with other local departments have yielded varying results with respect to police reports.

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A trip last week to Mount Pleasant Police Department to request incident reports for the previous Friday resulted in the City Paper being told to submit a formal FOIA request, a process that can take up to 40 days. When asked about provisions under the law that enable public review of recent reports, police department employees said a formal request was needed.

North Charleston Police Department officials also seemed unaware of statutes that require recent reports to be made available, giving the City Paper the runaround at city hall.

Clerks with Isle of Palms and Folly Beach law enforcement agencies provided reports on Jan. 19, with IOP emailing a PDF of recent incidents and Folly Beach providing 18 redacted reports for review in-person. In response to an email about department policies, Sullivan’s Island police officials first requested a formal FOIA, and did not respond to a follow-up email citing state law saying the reports must be provided.

A Charleston County Sheriff’s Office spokesman also told the City Paper in late October that anyone seeking reports from the past 14 days can request them at the agency’s administrative offices on Leeds Avenue.

This week is the first issue since mid-October we’ve featured all-new Blotter entries because of unclear interpretations of the state transparency laws.

As the City Paper wrote in this week’s editorial, “Agencies must reexamine policies to ensure public servants follow the law. To do otherwise is to break the law they’re supposed to uphold.”

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