Charleston officials will not release city emails about Denzel Curnell's death or information about the police officer who saw him die because the documents might harm the agency, they claimed in letters that The Post and Courier received Monday.
The Charleston Police Department denied three requests for the public records under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
The newspaper had asked for emails by police commanders and other city leaders after the June 20 incident outside the Bridgeview Village apartments. It also requested Officer Jamal Medlin's personnel file and any video of the shooting.
Curnell, 19, died of a gunshot wound to the head during an encounter with Medlin. Charleston leaders have insisted that the officer did nothing wrong, but the State Law Enforcement Division has taken over the investigation, and it won't say exactly why.
Without key information, community members have staged protests and a news conference demanding a better accounting of the shooting and how the police handled it.
Charleston attorney Andy Savage, who represents Curnell's loved ones, said the fight for answers was continuing two weeks later.
Without discussing their evaluation, authorities could give the public an idea of what they're evaluating, Savage said Monday. They could answer yes-or-no questions about the existence of witnesses and surveillance video, he said.
"There's a wall of silence," Savage said. "They release all kinds of information in armed robberies, burglaries. ... I guess this is a special case."
In the letters dated Thursday, the Police Department mentioned SLED's probe in denying the FOIA requests. The police also cited an exemption under the state law allowing an agency to deny requests if "the disclosure of the information would harm the agency by ... the premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action."
The law does not state that the Police Department can withhold public information because it's part of an outside agency's investigation.
Police spokesman Charles Francis refused to explain what harm his agency would experience if it were to release the information. Instead of answering questions Monday, he re-sent the three letters denying the newspaper's requests.
Attempts on Monday to contact city attorney Will Bryant by telephone and email were not successful.
Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, called the department's argument weak and said the exemption typically involves investigative techniques not known to the public.
"The fact that SLED is investigating has nothing to do with the openness of (Charleston Police Department) records," Rogers said.
'Inappropriate to discuss'
The FOIA requires a public agency to respond within 15 days of a query. The Charleston police answered in less than seven.
But several requests for information on Curnell's death remain unanswered by other agencies.
The newspaper also asked for 911 calls, police-radio communications and an autopsy report from Charleston County and any supplemental reports from the police force.
County spokesman Shawn Smetana said last week that the dispatch recordings were awaiting approval by the Charleston police. The county houses that data, but it typically waits until the agency featured in the recordings approves its release.
The Post and Courier also asked SLED for any video of the ordeal and its aftermath. By law, SLED must answer by noon July 16.
Thom Berry, a SLED spokesman, declined Monday to answer questions about whether the emails and the officer's file were part of the agency's investigation. State agents have said little about the incident that was reported to them as a struggle resulting in gunfire.
"Our investigation is continuing," Berry said in answering questions about whether SLED had obtained the emails or the file. "It would be inappropriate to discuss any specific details while the investigation is underway."
The emails would come from a three-day span between the shooting at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday and 10 a.m. the next Tuesday.
They would include messages sent and received by city leaders, such as Mayor Joe Riley and council members, as well as police commanders, including Chief Greg Mullen and Capt. Naomi Broughton, who called SLED to investigate.
They would include an email Francis sent to city officials on the night of Curnell's death that labeled the shooting a possible suicide. The police later added that Curnell had been armed, but they have refused to further explain the initial account from Francis.
In a letter to the newspaper last week, Riley said that SLED asked the department not to release any further information.
But to Rogers, not releasing internal emails stirs up more suspicion.
"The public has the right to see this," he said.
It's not the first time that Charleston police officials have cited a SLED probe in refusing to release information about shootings involving one of their own.
After a March 2013 shootout in West Ashley that wounded Officer Cory Goldstein and the 26-year-old suspect he was chasing, Mark L. Blake Jr., the department cited SLED's probe into the ordeal when it denied requests for supplemental incident reports, video and dispatch recordings.
SLED eventually fulfilled those requests for the newspaper.
The argument has popped up in other types of cases, too.
A year ago, Charleston officers were credited with helping to crack a plot to kill Nancy Latham, a local real estate agent and state lottery official. After federal agents took over that probe, the police wouldn't release their incident reports documenting how it started.
In May 2013, the College of Charleston also declined to hand over police reports about campus officers' discovery of fake student identification cards - a find that prompted a federal investigation into a nationwide counterfeiting ring.
In Curnell's case, public information that's readily available in other criminal cases might shed light on how the Burke High School graduate died and on how the police responded. His relatives have questioned why the left-handed man would shoot himself in the right side of the head and why police investigators instead of SLED agents were allowed to gather evidence at the scene.
Savage, their attorney, still has plans to get some of those answers but continues to hit roadblocks, he said.
"I'm kind of perplexed by the whole thing," Savage said.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.