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Much of Charleston City Paper’s journalistic work, from compiling the weekly Blotter police news summary to covering the dysfunctional school board, depends on state public records statutes. Unfortunately, some local law enforcement agencies are failing to follow state law on open records. Our governments — and transparency laws that hold officials accountable — exist to protect and serve the people. All agencies must follow the law. Full stop.

The City Paper recently experienced firsthand how local police are skirting state open records laws. For months, the paper has been embroiled in an unnecessary, annoying and disappointing spat with the Charleston Police Department (CPD).

After the October 2021 retirement of the department’s longtime public information officer, CPD abruptly removed access to recent incident reports as required under the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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South Carolina’s FOIA requires public bodies to disclose certain information relevant to public officials’ use of taxpayer money and resources, including meeting minutes, spending, jail logs and more. Among the requirements is for local law enforcement agencies to make available at least two weeks of reports detailing alleged crimes. The reports must be supplied for inspection without a written request when visiting departments in person.

For years, City Paper reviewed reports weekly as the foundation for each issue’s Blotter column, which chronicles mundane and sometimes bizarre police work in the city of Charleston. In many ways, reporting on these incidents showcases the absurdities that police officers experience, which builds empathy for their tough jobs. Now and then, reporters also discover local notables accused of crimes or involved in legal disputes.

The City Paper’s Blotter is a popular humorous weekly collection of drunken antics, bumbling thieves and other weird stuff. But in reality, the Blotter is only possible because of state public records laws that allow citizens to hold public servants accountable.

“It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner,” the introduction of the state FOIA statute reads. The law exists to “make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.”

To regain access to the reports, a city attorney first wanted the newspaper to sign an agreement that would have put unreasonable limits on the ability for our reporters to report. We refused.

At that point, our options were to take CPD to court and have a judge tell the department to turn over the reports, or try to reach an agreement privately. To avoid the headache and high cost of litigation, we chose the latter option. We are thankful again to be able to report the Blotter, but wish it did not come to this. In fact, CPD needs to remove the shackles it currently places on public information.

Unfortunately, CPD isn’t the only law enforcement agency ignoring FOIA. We ran into issues requesting similar reports from police in North Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island.

“Police departments and school districts routinely ignore the law,” said Jay Bender, a retired Columbia media attorney. “These situations highlight the arrogance of public officials who seem to believe they are our rulers and not our representatives.”

For some agencies, it’s an issue of time and resources. For others, it’s plain ignorance. But the law is the law, and it has been for more than 40 years in South Carolina.

“The public pays for the creation and availability of public records, and an agency committed to public service would not use cost as an excuse for failure to follow the law or a barrier to citizen access,” Bender said.

Agencies must reexamine policies to ensure public servants follow the law. To do otherwise is to break the law they’re supposed to uphold.

Leaders looking for more information should refer to the state-produced Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. FOIA, available at scpress.org.