It should be easier now for the public to get basic information about crimes that occur in the town of Bluffton – one of the state’s fastest-growing municipalities.
Reversing actions taken last month, Bluffton police chief Joseph Manning says his department will no longer require formal S.C. Freedom of Information Act requests – a typically slow process – for routine incident reports about recent crimes in the town of about 19,000 residents.
In a recent interview at The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, Manning and town manager Marc Orlando gave assurances that basic information on recent crimes will be made quickly available to the public without having to file formal requests under the state open-records law.
“We are very open,” said Manning, the town’s former deputy chief who was named chief in June by Orlando. “We have been very open. ... That has not changed and never will change for as long as I’m here.”
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The formal-request requirement was instituted late last month, shortly after the newspapers published stories revealing generous overtime pay by the Bluffton Police Department during Hurricane Matthew, and allegations that some officers were drinking and appeared drunk while getting paid overtime the night before the Oct. 8, 2016, storm.
Manning and Orlando denied that last month’s change in how police reports would be released had anything to do with the newspapers’ coverage.
In effect, the new requirement made Bluffton police the least accessible police agency in the county for the public to obtain basic crime information, the newspapers reported in a follow-up story.
The Beaufort Police Department, Port Royal Police Department and Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office do not require formal FOI requests for daily reports.
It’s the police department’s job to (release information). You shouldn’t have to pester them about providing public information to the taxpayers and citizens.
John Crangle, government relations director, South Carolina Progressive Network
“It’s the police department’s job to (release information),” said John Crangle, an attorney and longtime government watchdog in Columbia, when contacted Thursday. “You shouldn’t have to pester them about providing public information to the taxpayers and citizens.”
An attorney with the South Carolina Press Association, of which the Packet and Gazette is a member, said the state Freedom of Information Act requires that police reports filed within the previous 14 days be made available to the public without a formal FOIA request.
“Incident reports are open,” said Bill Rogers, the press association’s executive director. “Not summaries of them. The actual report should be open.”
During a meeting with a reporter and an editor from the Packet and Gazette, Manning and Orlando said the police department’s spokesperson misspoke when informing a reporter earlier about filing FOIA requests.
The meeting took place following a call that day by a reporter to Manning to discuss the legality of being required to submit formal records requests, after the newspapers had consulted with a press association attorney.
Crangle, formerly the longtime executive director of Common Cause South Carolina and now the government relations director for the South Carolina Progressive Network, said in his experience, local government agencies over the years have made it more difficult to work with the public.
“One of the things local government does a lot of is try to hide what they’re doing at a minimum to avoid embarrassment and oftentimes to avoid the fact that they are doing duplicitous things,” he said. “It’s very common for local governments to throw a cloud of fog around what they are doing to keep the media from finding out.”
Rogers said he has seen other police departments in the state restrict the flow of information to the public.
“It happens elsewhere, not necessarily in reaction to negative coverage, but in general,” he said. “It happens out of desire not to let the public know what is going on in your community and keep it secret.”
The state FOIA was changed this year to require public agencies to initially respond within 10 business days of a request for records less than two years old, as compared to 15 business days under the old law. If the requested records are available, they generally must be provided within 30 calendar days of when the person was notified about their availability.
But Rogers said the public should know about crimes in their community more quickly than the deadlines established in the open-records law.
The public has a need to know to protect themselves from criminals.
Bill Rogers, executive director, South Carolina Press Association
“The public has a need to know to protect themselves from criminals, and 10 or 15 days before you get information doesn’t allow that,” he said. “If there’s a series of crimes in the community, the public needs to know.”
Manning said Tuesday that rather than submitting formal FOIA requests, reporters can continue to ask for incident reports from the department via email or fax.
Last month, department spokeswoman Joy Nelson informed a Packet and Gazette reporter of the requirement to file a formal FOIA request after the reporter asked for a report on a child neglect case that happened within the week of the request. When the newspapers obtained the report the following week after filing an open-records request, only the child’s name had been redacted.
Previously, the newspapers emailed or called Nelson to ask for a complete incident report, and the request would typically be fulfilled on the day of the request. The department leaves a log of summaries at its front desk for reporters to check, but the summaries do not provide enough information to fully inform the public on the circumstances of each incident.
In comparison, the Sheriff’s Office leaves reports with full narratives out in each of its two offices for reporters to check daily.
Orlando said Tuesday he would work with the town police department to ensure that reports are released in a timely manner, and that the department will look into leaving full reports at its front desk for reporters to look through rather than just summaries.
In an email Friday, Manning said the department will “clarify on the (department’s) website how to obtain these requests,” plus “allow full narratives to be released daily” starting Monday.
“It sounds like we know what the issue is now,” said Orlando. “The issue is the way we’re asking you to ask us for information.”
S.C. Freedom of Information Act
Section 30-4-30(D) — The following records of a public body must be made available for public inspection and copying during the hours of operations of the public body, unless the record is exempt pursuant to Section 30-4-40 or other state or federal laws, without the requestor being required to make a written request to inspect or copy the records when the requestor appears in person:
(2) all reports identified in Section 30-4-50(A)(8) for at least the fourteen-day period before the current day.
Section 30-4-50(A) — Without limiting the meaning of other sections of this chapter, the following categories of information are specifically made public information subject to the restrictions and limitations of Sections 30-4-20, 30-4-40, and 30-4-70 of this chapter:
(8) reports which disclose the nature, substance and location of any crime reported as having been committed. Where a report contains information exempt as otherwise provided by law, the law enforcement agency may delete that information from the report.