On the night of Jan. 8, a trio of robbers burst into a popular supermarket in suburban West Ashley and held terrified employees at gunpoint while they plundered cash from the store's safe.
But you'd never know that from reading the public report Charleston police completed on the holdup.
The official police report -- which the public can obtain at the police records office -- offers just a one-line summary stating that an officer was sent to Publix in reference to a robbery. No details at all on the suspects, what they did or even how many robbers were involved.
Such one- and two-line reports have become commonplace for Charleston police over the last couple years. In many cases, the real details are hidden in supplemental reports that police officials have refused to release to the public -- in violation of the state Freedom of Information Act.
Charleston police say the practice is not department policy, but likely a well-meaning attempt by some officers to keep a lid on information investigators need to solve crimes.
Other area police departments have used the same strategy on occasion, but not to the degree seen in Charleston, where details on homicides, robberies, rapes and other serious crimes have become increasingly scant.
Such information was made public by the Legislature to help people make informed decisions about safety in their communities and how law enforcement uses their tax money.
State lawmakers, in fact, changed the Freedom of Information Act in 1998 to make clear that supplemental reports also are public records, not loopholes so police can hide details about crimes, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell said. The amended law requires police to release all reports detailing the nature, substance and location of crimes.
"It should all be there" in the police reports, McConnell said.
"The best thing is to err on the side of disclosure. I think that was the spirit of the law."
After reviewing some of the one-line reports, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he would speak to his commanders and have them remind officers of the need to provide enough information in reports for the public to understand what occurred and be better able to help police with tips if they see or learn anything about the incident.
Mark Bourdon, the police department's in-house lawyer, said he would also remind officials that supplemental reports are public records and subject to release. Police might have to redact some information to shield certain witnesses from harm or to safeguard facts crucial to pending investigations, but the department never intended to issue a blanket denial to requests for these reports, he said.
Police officials, including the department's public information officer, Charles Francis, have on multiple occasions refused to provide supplemental reports on crimes, even though the department provided them in years past. Francis and others have often cited detectives' concerns about jeopardizing pending investigations.
Mullen said police are trying to achieve a balance where the public is kept informed about crimes without hamstringing investigators. A robber, for example, might choose to dump a distinctive jacket he wore during his crime if he learned that police were looking for someone wearing such an item, he said.
"I understand that people want to know what's going on, but at the same time, we want to give our investigators as much opportunity as possible to solve these cases," he said.
That's fine, South Carolina Press Association attorney Jay Bender said, but the law does not allow police to pick and choose what information they find convenient to release. The open records law has narrowly defined provisions for redacting details from crime reports, and the state Supreme Court has ruled that police must prove that releasing the information would injure their agency in some way. Each instance must be decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.
"They are not entitled to a blanket exemption that 'this is under investigation,'" Bender said.
This is not the first time Charleston police have come up against complaints about withholding information and ignoring provisions of the state's sunshine law.
In 2008, Charleston police began blacking out names, addresses, phone numbers and other important details from the reports, claiming the information fell within privacy provisions of the FOIA.
Open records law advocates challenged the move, saying the act's privacy protections were meant to shield highly sensitive information, such as a person's medical history, not to prevent the public from learning specifics about the people and events involved in a crime.
Bender and others argued that the failure to release such details effectively denied people living in the areas of the crimes the ability to know they might be in danger. It also effectively denied police the opportunity to obtain volunteered information from residents who might have seen something, they said.
Police backed off to some degree, but have continued, on occasion, to redact information from reports that FOIA experts insist should be public.
Mullen said police are doing their best to achieve a proper balance and comply with the law. Some of the more recent incident reports on crimes -- completed after Mullen spoke with The Post and Courier -- have contained more details.
The chief maintains he is committed to getting the media and the public the information they are entitled to receive.