Residents rely on their police department to keep them informed about apparent crimes in their area, so withholding basic information from the public sends the wrong message to people who need to know what is happening in their own backyard.
Mount Pleasant resident Ann Witherspoon was found dead of a gunshot wound at her home Feb. 9. On Friday, she had been dead at least six days, but the public was not told about her death until The Post and Courier began asking questions about it, according to reporter Gregory Yee.
That’s unacceptable. Residents should be told as quickly as possible when police are investigating a shooting death. They certainly should be alerted if there’s a possibility that a violent offender is on the loose.
The scant information about the Witherspoon case became public only after the newspaper followed up on a tip. Mount Pleasant police compounded their lack of transparency by releasing a heavily redacted incident report, an unusual move that raised more questions. They also arrested and charged someone with grand larceny of a motor vehicle in connection with the case but did not immediately identify that person.
Perhaps there is a compelling reason for such extreme secrecy — no one wants to see a perpetrator escape justice — but it’s hard to say since police had not provided one as of Monday afternoon. Neither had the town, which issued a statement from Mayor Will Haynie last week that revealed little more than his confidence in the police department.
The state’s Freedom of Information Act spells out what government info the public is entitled to and the exceptions that allow agencies to hold back info. The newspaper’s attorney, Jay Bender, said that police agencies sometimes lean too far toward keeping details from the public.
“In many instances, cops have a serious problem with believing that the public needs to know,” Mr. Bender told Mr. Yee.
This could be such a case, but no can say for sure. In most instances the FOIA provides clear guidelines for governments and the public, but it does include language that can leave wiggle room for a less certain interpretation of the law. And, at times, police have made creative use of those interpretations to the public’s detriment.
Regardless, in striking a balance on releasing information, police should be biased toward giving residents as much info as possible. That is not always a comfortable decision for investigators, but it’s the right thing to do. That’s how police departments build and maintain trust with the public.
Hopefully police will solve this case soon. That would be the best outcome for everyone, particularly Ms. Witherspoon’s family, friends and neighbors. But in the future police and town officials should be more transparent with information so the public is not left in the dark.