Sheriff's Office must increase transparency

info@islandpacket.comDecember 20, 2013 

South Carolina's open records law -- which ensures the public can find out what its public bodies are up to -- is weak. Far too often, individuals, organizations and the media are frustrated that public bodies skirt the law and deny access to information.

Adding to the problem, public bodies have developed their own unique ways of denying access including citing disclosure exemptions that do not exist in the law, making decisions behind closed doors where the public cannot ask questions and charging unreasonable rates for gathering and making copies of documents, essentially pricing the public out.

The result: important information on government spending, policy and the way public officials reach decisions is kept from the very people who pay taxes and must live with the decisions made by their elected officials. It is impossible to hold agencies and their leaders accountable if the public is denied the very information needed to make that decision.

We are disappointed to see the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office continuing down this all-too-familiar path, withholding information about a teacher accused of illegal behavior with a student.

The Sheriff's Office recently refused to provide its complete incident report to the newspaper. Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his office routinely provides only the front page of reports while an investigation is ongoing. Tanner said he has no plans to change his one-page policy.

Citing an ongoing investigation is a common excuse given by S.C. law enforcement agencies, looking to keep documents secret. And it truly is an excuse since those seeking information are typically looking for facts -- such as the evidence that led to an arrest -- not confidential leads or the names of police informants that could jeopardize an investigation or endanger someone's safety. We have never heard anyone argue that such information should be publicly available nor would we advocate for it.

Meanwhile, state law already takes into account that some police documents should be kept private. The Freedom of Information Act outlines information that can be redacted in reports. Then, the redacted reports must be turned over, not withheld and not parceled at one page at a time.

This isn't the first time the sheriff's office has failed to be transparent. State law was amended in the 1980s to stop the office's unscrupulous practice of providing only cursory information on reports while recording fuller descriptions in so-called supplemental reports that were withheld from the public.

The current practice of providing only the first page of reports is no better and also breaks the spirit, and we believe, the letter of the law. The residents of Beaufort County deserve better.

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