Charleston police officials were ready to release a report about the arrest that unraveled an alleged murder plot last month when federal prosecutors pulled the plug on their efforts to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office told them that releasing the document, as well as supplemental reports, would stymie its investigation into those scheming to kill state lottery official Nancy Latham.
The police bowed to the wish.
But The Post and Courier soon found the report in a stack of crime records at police headquarters. It described how an officer pulled over a suspect and how a pistol was found in his car.
It said nothing about a plot.
“We were preparing to release that original report, but they said it would harm their case,” Deputy Police Chief Tony Elder said. “We are police, and when you’re looking at potential harm to an investigation ... we feel we have to defer to them.”
The denial was what one media attorney called a step backward for the Charleston Police Department after the agency made strides in the past year to be more open by releasing supplemental crime reports.
An agency can claim a FOIA exception if it says how a document could foil its own prospective action, said Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association. Federal officials’ actions are not a reason to hold back, he said.
But the argument has snowballed. The College of Charleston’s police force recently cited a federal probe when it refused to release a report.
“To have one agency ask another to break the law is remarkable,” Bender said. “The police are rolling over for the feds.”
But while some agencies have closed the door to public documents, others have opened up:
After an SUV was chased from West Ashley to Orangeburg County last week, the Sheriff’s Office said it couldn’t immediately provide incident reports. For nearly two days, the public would have known little about why deputies pursued the car at 100 mph for nearly 75 miles if it weren’t for their radio transmissions that day.
Charleston County spokesman Shawn Smetana said the county recently devised a process to quickly get copies of 9-1-1 calls and dispatch communications, which are public records, to the news media.
When the county gets a request, workers at the 9-1-1 Center compile the recordings and send them to the agency involved. The agency approves the release, and the county provides Internet access to the data.
Less than a day after the high-speed chase, the county released deputies’ communications, revealing that their target was a suspected drug dealer who tried to run over one of their own.
“(We) strive to be completely transparent to the public,” Smetana said. “This is just one way to accomplish that goal.”
For free and easy access to police reports in Myrtle Beach, residents can go online.
After software strikes out any personal information, incident reports are posted on a police Web page. The department says the system has generated no complaints and has freed up personnel.
After a baby showed up at a hospital with a skull fracture and a father was arrested, the police released a report stating those facts but little else. More information would be in supplemental reports, the report stated, that the police refused to release.
After the police were informed that state law requires the release of all crime reports, including supplements, they did so.
The reports explained the abuse that the child allegedly suffered.
Members of the public must file a written request for crime reports from the S.C. Highway Patrol even though the FOIA says the public doesn’t have to. Anyone who shows up at a police agency and asks for a report generated in the past 14 days should get it without that hassle, the law states.
But the patrol’s parent agency doesn’t have the manpower to handle such requests, Lt. Kelley Hughes said. Because the agency has offices statewide, that geographic challenge slows the process, he said.
Plus, each request must go through a single FOIA coordinator, Leigh Watkins, who handles 250 every month.
“We’re not like your local police department where everything is happening in your area,” Hughes said. “We can’t always get a report when you’re coming in off the street.”
In April, the police said the U.S. Attorney’s Office would decide whether to release reports about the murder-for-hire arrest.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams has declined to say how the release could ruin his case.
Regardless, state courts have already decided that the department’s reasoning for withholding information is faulty, according to Bender, the press attorney.
In 2005, North Charleston refused to hand over a 9-1-1 call describing a police shooting because the Solicitor’s Office worried that it would taint the jury pool.
The Post and Courier sued, and the state Supreme Court ruled that the city must release the tape because it could not prove any harm to itself.
When they busted a fake ID ring in Virginia, federal investigators credited the school’s Department of Public Safety for helping to crack the case. But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked the school not to release reports about local aspects of the crime.
College attorney Kathryn Bender, who isn’t related to the press attorney, channeled the same FOIA exemption as the Charleston police did in the alleged murder plot: that the release would harm a “prospective law enforcement action.”
“That claim is often made, but you never hear about the law enforcement action actually coming to fruition,” Jay Bender, the Press Association attorney, said. “The bad guys already know what happened. The only people kept in the dark are the people paying the salaries of the police.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.