You’d think area police agencies would follow the law when it comes to providing the public with information it is legally required to offer. But more than a year after we wrote about how area police routinely erect information barriers that violate legal standards for providing information, they continue to dodge the law.
Imagine if that happened to you during an attempted traffic stop. You think they’d look the other way? More than likely, you’d be thrown in jail .
It’s Sunshine Week, which means it’s the time of year that newspapers across the country tout the importance of open records laws to the democratic process. These laws are vital for the public’s ability to judge the functions of local and state governments. Without them, too much would be done in secret.
While open records laws strengthen democracy for everyone, they’re most often used by media outlets to get access to things like police incident reports to better inform the public about crime and safety.
Various Charleston County police departments handle police records differently, generally saying that they must redact some information from reports to protect privacy. The problem seems to be, however, that different agencies have different standards of limiting information, which means that the public’s right to know is thwarted on a routine basis.
The Charleston Police Department, for example, provides a spreadsheet, upon request, of general types of incidents that the public — and reporters — have to use it to guess on individual incident reports to request. Then police provide those reports after the department decides what to redact. As best as we can tell, there’s been insufficient training offered to those doing the redacting. And what happens if an incident is left off of the spreadsheet — as in the case of the January death of attorney David Aylor? We may not know to even ask for a report. That’s not good for democracy. And it’s not a way for police to serve the public. In North Charleston, police have a spreadsheet available for 14 days, as outlined in law, but again, requests for specific reports have to be made with little context to get a sense of what’s really happening. In other jurisdictions, local police have different rules to provide information. have to be made with little context to get a sense of what’s really happening. In other jurisdictions, local police have different rules to provide information.
Area departments provided helpful, but redacted, information as the basis for what became of our recent “A Month of Shootings” story about gun violence in the county. But what was offered could have been better through a simple process of letting reporters look at every report, instead of having them hunt and peck for details using incomplete information. Reporters, not police, need to decide what’s relevant in the news gathering process.
What we wrote a year ago in what became a first-place column still applies today: “Agencies must re-examine policies to ensure public servants follow the law. To do otherwise is to break the law they’re supposed to uphold.”
For more information on what public agencies should do, read the state-produced Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. FOIA.
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