About two weeks ago, Summerville Police arrested a man they suspected of going on a violent crime spree, raping and stabbing local women.
That’s pretty serious, and it’s not every day stuff like that happens in Flowertown.
But in mid-January, a man kidnapped a woman at knifepoint. When she screamed, he cut her hand before she managed to get away.
Shortly after that, police suspect the very same thug raped another woman and cut her and left her to bleed out.
On Feb. 3, Summerville police conceded a man had been arrested in connection with those two cases, and possibly several other similar crimes — but revealed it to The Post and Courier only after an inquiry from reporter.
They had not said a thing about this, and refused to release any further information even though the man had been charged with two counts of kidnapping, one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and assault with intent to commit the same crime.
That’s about 120 years’ worth of prison time for those of you keeping score at home. Pretty serious offenses, in other words.
But it gets worse.
Unbeknownst to the media — or more importantly, the public — a day later a judge released this man on bail, without police warning anyone that a potential serial rapist was running loose.
That is crazy, and dangerous as hell.
A lot of people may have missed this salient point, as the story devolved into a Freedom of Information Act debate.
According to Jay Bender, a leading attorney in the field, the Summerville Police Department was violating the state’s laws and its constitution by not releasing incident reports or details.
The police argued that such a release could jeopardize the ongoing investigation. When a reporter cited the law, they encouraged the newspaper to sue.
That would only cost taxpayers a bunch of money to defend a lawsuit the police would ultimately lose because, in this case, they are clearly in the wrong.
Look, this is not about the media. Police reporters routinely accept partially redacted incident reports and work with law enforcement to make sure that cases are not compromised and the innocent-until-proven-guilty are not erroneously harmed.
If the police want to take a couple of days to show the suspects’ picture to other victims, news outlets are usually pretty cooperative. No one wants to taint an investigation.
And the police and prosecutors are often right to keep things out of the public eye for a brief time to compare witness statements, get police line-up identifications and the like. It can sometimes mean the differences between a criminal getting convicted or walking free.
But to withhold all information, as Summerville police did, and then release a man suspected of repeated violent attacks, does not hurt the TV stations or the newspaper.
It endangers the public.
Last week, Berkeley County deputies arrested this same man on similar charges.
Thomas Michael Powell, 28, of Thomaston Avenue in Summerville was charged with a third count of kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct in connection with a case similar to the other two.
He denied the charges, pleaded his innocence, but a judge denied him bail. He remains behind bars.
Now, in fairness to Summerville police, they asked the first judge, Gregory Hyland, in Summerville Municipal Court to deny Powell bail. Why? Well, because they think he’s dangerous.
But that makes it all the more egregious that the department didn’t release any information on the arrest, the charges or the case. What’s worse, Summerville police said they had no plans to change their policy.
The question is: why not? If they have released a potentially dangerous suspect, why would they not tell the public he could be hanging out at Wal-Mart?
It’s become fashionable to blame the media for everything, thanks to politicians who are usually upset they’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t. That’s tough luck.
The police should not fall into the trap of believing such hyperbole. The media is not the enemy. The bad guys are.
And the police need to understand that the only way to warn the public about crimes, and potentially violent criminals, is through the media.
We are the public, and the public has a right to know what’s going on.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.