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Despite pledges of transparency, Columbia withholds public records from police shootings

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Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook directs police during protests on May 30, 2020. The Columbia department is one of several that has experienced funding cuts this year in response to budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic. File/Thomas Hammond/Provided

COLUMBIA — In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the Columbia Police Department’s top brass pledged a renewed commitment to keeping the public informed of cases in which their own officers use force on citizens.

“We’re transparent, we’re accountable and we always will be, because that’s what’s expected, and that’s what a professional police department looks like,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook told reporters in June.

But since then, skirting South Carolina’s open records law, his department for months has withheld reports that document recent Columbia police shootings and other complaints against some of the officers involved.

The Post and Courier requested the records in July under the state’s Freedom of Information Act after it came to light that Columbia police officers used deadly force in separate incidents in 2019 and earlier this year.

One involved an officer in April who shot and killed 17-year-old Joshua Ruffin in the parking lot of the high school he attended. After a brief foot chase, the officer said he fired in self-defense after he spotted Ruffin holding a gun.

In another incident in August 2019, an officer shot Sir Brandon Legette, 29, in the back of the head after a scuffle during a traffic stop. Legette survived.

The newspaper sought access to the police department’s internal investigations of those incidents, and reports documenting other Columbia police shootings in recent years.

The Post and Courier also requested access to disciplinary files stemming from any prior or more recent complaints filed against the officers who fired their guns in the two most recent shootings.

State law gave city officials as many as 40 business days to produce those records.

Asked about the delay, Mayor Steve Benjamin said he expressed his concerns about a “lack of timeliness” with the police department and other officials.

“I’ve been assured that the requested information will be provided posthaste,” he said.

Dana Thye, a deputy city attorney, said Tuesday that her office was reviewing a portion of the records, which a records clerk then said would be available to review before the end of the day.

Last month, Thye requested — and The Post and Courier agreed — to extend the request another two weeks, setting a new deadline of Sept. 25. That was more than two weeks ago: The full batch of records has not been provided.

Jennifer Timmons, a police spokeswoman, did not explain the delay but said the department is juggling numerous requests for similar information.

“We are working on the remaining requests and ask for patience as we balance all the various demands on our law enforcement resources during this current pandemic,” she said.

Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney who The Post and Courier retains for work on disputes involving the open records law, said Columbia should have released the information by now.

“The City of Columbia has demonstrated by its refusal to provide access to records of police officers investigated for their conduct that the City is willing to be complicit in sheltering from public view the process for disciplining officers whose conduct is unacceptable or unlawful,” he said.

For his part, Benjamin acknowledged a “perception of a lack of transparency,” which he called “unacceptable.”

Part of the discussion over police reforms nationwide in the wake of Floyd's death, Columbia has sought to take an active approach. In June, the police department updated its use-of-force policy to tighten its restriction on chokeholds. That same month, Holbrook was named to a national policing reform group.

Among a department of roughly 360, Columbia police officers opened fire in no fewer than a dozen instances in the past five years, according to tallies in annual reports summarizing the department’s use of force. The most recent such report available on the city’s website dates to 2018.

Because the reports do not detail every incident, it’s unclear in how many cases the officers actually fired at others. The reports note some cases in which officers unintentionally discharged their weapons.

The department’s internal investigations of the incidents are likely to offer far greater detail. These investigations, which can stretch weeks, often include incident reports, officer statements and other records documenting the incident.

The State Law Enforcement Division also investigated the incidents involving Columbia Officer Kevin Davis — who shot Ruffin in April — and Officer Sean Rollins — who shot Legette. In both cases, 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson declined to criminally charge the officers.

Holbrook, the police chief, has acknowledged internal investigations of Davis and Rollins, which would determine if the officers violated any department policy. The records are also likely to reveal internal deliberations showing the basis for why the police chose to discipline, or not discipline, an officer.

The newspaper sought access to disciplinary records after Holbrook told reporters in June that Davis, a near five-year officer, has had no fewer than three complaints filed against him. Though Holbrook did not go into detail, he said one case involved a pursuit and another involved a vehicle accident.

In another case, Davis opened fire on what Holbrook described as an “aggressive pit bull” that went after another officer. Davis was cleared of wrongdoing in that case, Holbrook said.

It’s unclear how many complaints Rollins has faced, though he has been with the department for a little more than two years. According to a one-page summary of his disciplinary file, obtained by The Post and Courier, Rollins faces a still-pending unspecified complaint regarding “unsatisfactory performance.”

The complaint was filed in July, not long after police acknowledged Rollins shot non-lethal rounds at a crowd of people protesting Floyd’s death in May.

Another complaint over excessive force was filed on Aug. 24, 2019 — the same day Rollins shot Legette. That internal investigation was closed in February. With no other detail, the summary of the case contains a single word: Exonerated.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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