One day after an article was published questioning the overtime spending of the Bluffton Police Department and the effect it would have on taxpayers, the department announced a change in policy that would make it the least accessible police agency in the county for routine police reports.
Joy Nelson, the spokesperson for the department, said the story that appeared in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette had nothing to do with the change.
Previously, the department made police reports including a full narrative of incidents available immediately at a reporter’s request. The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the Beaufort Police Department and the Port Royal Police Department all make their reports available as well.
This week, however, Bluffton police will insist on a formal Freedom of Information request from media and residents who are not directly involved in the incident. The greater impact will be a slower flow of information on public safety incidents to the public.
By making this change, the department could manipulate the law to withhold the reports for multiple weeks – current law gives agencies 10 business days just to acknowledge the request. Delays are common when FOI requests are made for information that require research and compilation; agencies typically provide on-hand documents the same day they are requested.
The policy change comes one day after the papers’ investigation into how much overtime costs police agencies rang up during Hurricane Matthew last year. The investigation showed that not only did Bluffton run up the largest bill for its size, but that it was paying its officers overtime for 24 hours a day whether they were actively working – or watching TV or sleeping – during the time it declared emergency conditions. Bluffton also declared the longest emergency period of the group, running the tab higher. A second story reported on a complaint filed by one officer that other officers were drinking and appeared drunk while getting paid overtime the night of the storm. The department never investigated the officer’s complaint; chief Joseph Manning told the newspapers that if the officers had been drinking, he was confident the officers were not drunk and had used good judgment.
When asked if the change in how the police department interacts with the media was due to the articles, Nelson said no.
“Absolutely not,” Nelson said. “... We want to make sure that we are going by the book on every aspect of everything, and this is going by the book.”
When asked about the discrepancy in the policy change and how agencies such as the Sheriff’s Office make information available easily, Nelson responded, “They have their process, we have ours.”
The department will still make abbreviated reports available immediately, Nelson said. Those reports contain some details of the incident, but not the narrative that normally has been released.