Ignoring FOIA is risky

(File)

Anyone with doubts about the value of open government need only look to Summerville for assurance.

Because Summerville police and municipal court officials refused to release public information, citizens were unaware that a man who had been charged with rape was on bail, walking freely among them for five days. They didn’t even know to be cautious.

Thomas Michael Powell has been charged by police with attacking two women whom he had met online.

People on bail are not supervised, and the court did not instruct Mr. Powell to stay away from the Internet. Citizens learned about the situation only after Mr. Powell was arrested subsequently by Berkeley County deputies on charges of kidnapping and criminal sexual assault in an earlier December incident. In that case, a Berkeley County judge denied bail. And information about his arrest was not withheld.

Following that, Summerville police made public the incident reports — reports that the law classifies as public information.

Those reports confirmed that Mr. Powell had been charged in two Feb. 3 attacks.

And the Summerville municipal court released affidavits detailing his Feb. 3 arrest.

There is a reason for open government laws. It is always important for the public to have access to public information. That’s particularly important when the incidents in question relate to serious crimes, such as women being kidnapped, stabbed and choked.

Summerville police said they withheld the reports to give investigators a chance to track down other possible victims, if indeed there were any.

Apparently police didn’t consider that victims might be more willing to report a crime if they know they aren’t the only ones to do so.

Perhaps both the police and court administrators don’t understand the Freedom of Information Act. Or perhaps they simply chose not to abide by it.

Either way, such actions potentially put people at risk by keeping them in the dark. And apparently their tactics did nothing to assist in the investigation.

Ignoring Freedom of Information laws is ill-advised — and illegal.

It can also be dangerous.