While Charleston's police chief was pledging to be more open with the public about crime details this month, a top commander was at work instructing officers how to hide that information from reports available to residents.
The strategy is outlined in an internal memo obtained Friday by The Post and Courier. The Jan. 12 memo, sent to patrol supervisors by Capt. Kevin Boyd, explains that "sensitive information" about crimes should be kept from incident reports available to the media and public.
The memo states that descriptions of robbery suspects, injuries to sexual assault victims and weapons used in homicides are examples of information that should be placed in supplemental reports.
The memo erroneously states that supplemental reports can be withheld from the public until investigations are completed. In 1998, state lawmakers changed the Freedom of Information Act to stop police from hiding crime information in supplemental reports.
S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender called the police memo "nonsense," saying it instructs officers to violate the state's sunshine law and undermines the public's ability to offer tips and help solve crimes.
"I'm not suggesting for a moment that solving crimes is an easy business, but shutting the public out of the process seems counterproductive to me," Bender said.
The police department's in-house attorney, Mark Bourdon, said Boyd was attempting to provide officers with some guidance in preparing reports, but the memo contains inaccurate information regarding supplements, which are subject to release.
Bourdon said the memo wasn't cleared by his office or Police Chief Greg Mullen, and it doesn't reflect the department's position.
Bourdon said commanders are now working to put "the correct version of departmental policy" out to officers, and to explain how best to comply with the state's open records law. "It's not our intention to hide information in reports," he said.
The memo sent by Boyd went out the day after The Post and Courier spoke with Mullen about officers submitting bare-bones incident reports, and hiding details in supplemental documents officials refuse to release.
Several recent reports were limited to a single sentence with no description of what occurred.
During a Jan. 11 conversation with a reporter, Mullen pledged to speak with commanders and remind them of the need to share sufficient information about crimes with the public. He denied that the police department had an official strategy to withhold information from residents.
Mullen spoke to Boyd as a result of that conversation, and Boyd, in turn, asked Detective Sgt. Trisha Taylor to prepare a memo explaining how officers should prepare reports that comply with the FOIA, said Bourdon, who said he was speaking for the department on the issue.
The resulting document, titled "Writing an initial report," was a well-meaning effort to do that, he said.
Boyd, who oversees the patrol division, shared the memo with his officers "as a reference."
The memo states that "an initial report is only required to relay what crime occurred (date, time, location and crime)." It fails to mention that the FOIA law also requires police to detail the nature and substance of crimes.
The memo goes on to caution that the initial report is available to the media, "which means that even suspects will be privy to the information."
"If your mother was the victim, what information would you want shielded from the public?" the memo asks. "If the suspect had a copy of the initial report, what information would you save for the supplemental to protect the investigation?"
The memo also provides "an excellent example of an initial report," which offers a basic synopsis of a Jan. 10 robbery at a Wentworth Street convenience store.
The report offers no description of the suspect, the gun he used or how much cash he stole. The report mentions that the robber fired several shots as he fled from the scene, but the officer neglected to mention that those shots were fired directly at innocent bystanders leaving a nearby home. No one was injured.
Striking a balance
Bender and others argue that the failure to release such details effectively denies people living in the areas of the crimes the ability to know they might be in danger. It also effectively denies police the opportunity to obtain volunteered information from residents who might have seen something, they said.
Bourdon said police need to redact some information from reports to shield certain witnesses from harm or to safeguard facts crucial to pending investigations.
"But we are taking every step we can to make sure that correct information is put out and that all officers have a better understanding of what is required in these reports," he said.
Mayor Joe Riley did not respond to a request for comment on the memo.
City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who heads the public safety committee, said she had not seen the document, but planned to speak with Mullen about the matter.
Wilson said she can understand police officials' reluctance to release details that could hamper investigations, "but obviously we need to be in compliance with the law." She added that her committee has received no complaints about police handling of reports.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or on Twitter at @glennsmith5.