Crime & Public Safety

Bluffton Police drops policy that violated state law on release of public information

For the second time in nine months, the Bluffton Police Department has walked back a policy that sought to make it more difficult for the public to get the information it is legally entitled to.

On Monday morning, the department implemented a policy requiring the press and public to fill out a form before being allowed to see police reports.

On Monday afternoon, after The Island Packet pointed out that the policy violated the state's open records law, the Bluffton Police Department dropped it.

Earlier in the day, the department had required those who want to see police reports and other public information to fill out a form listing their name, driver's license number, contact information and the purpose of their request.

South Carolina law prohibits police departments from requiring the media or the public to fill out a written request to view a police report of an incident that happened within the past 14 days, South Carolina Press Association executive director Bill Rogers told The Island Packet on Monday.

Bluffton Deputy Town Manager Scott Marshall told The Island Packet on Monday afternoon the policy would no longer be enforced.

He said he spoke with Bluffton's Interim Police Chief Scott Chandler and all information covered by open-records laws would be publicly available.

Marshall said he wants the Bluffton Police Department to work with the town's IT department to eventually set up an information station in the lobby of the police department so anyone who wants to access police reports and other information can easily find it.

Before the policy was reversed, Bluffton Police Department spokesperson Joy Nelson told The Island Packet by phone that she was unfamiliar with the law before abruptly ending the call.

Nelson also contended the form requirement isn't a part of the state's Freedom of Information Act.

It in fact is.

South Carolina law states, "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 ... without the requestor being required to make a written request to inspect or copy the records when the requestor appears in person." Police reports are among the records listed in the law.

"By no means is it the Bluffton Police Department's intent to break the law in any way in regard to having the public write down what they would like to see," Nelson said in an email response to The Island Packet after being sent a copy of the section of the law covering police reports.

Nelson said the police department recently began enforcing the policy to hold people within the department accountable and keep a record for the department.

"We are looking at a way to improve the process in which people can request what they want, whether that be a police report older than 14 days, or one that is younger than 14 days," the email said.

This is not the first time the department has put a barrier between citizens and the public information they're entitled to.

On June 12, 2018, an Island Packet reporter was required to submit a Freedom of Information request for a police report. When questioned about the incident later that same day, Nelson said that shouldn't have happened and emailed the requested document to the reporter.

On two separate occasions since then, the reporter was required to fill out the new form the police department has started using.

In September, the department insisted a formal Freedom of Information request be submitted from media and residents who were not directly involved in the incident. That policy would have allowed the department to manipulate the law to withhold the reports, which are public information, for multiple weeks. Current law gives agencies 10 business days just to acknowledge the request.

Less than a month later, the department reversed the policy and the police chief at-the-time, Joseph Manning, and Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando assured The Island Packet basic information on recent crimes would be quickly made available to the public without having to file formal requests under the open-records law.

Manning left the department in April.

Currently, the Bluffton Police Department makes abbreviated reports available immediately, which include a few sentences with some details of the incident but not the narrative that is typically released by police departments.

Prior to the change last fall, the department had made police reports, including a full narrative of the incidents, immediately available at a reporter's request.

"You shouldn't settle for abbreviated reports," Rogers said. "The entire police report should be made available."

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, Beaufort Police Department and the Port Royal Police Department all make their reports immediately available.