Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

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Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc – Black police records and high charges are how South Carolina officials work around the state’s freedom of information law.

In January, Charleston police used black ink when they let the public see a search warrant for the home of a prominent lawyer who died. They withheld much of the information, invoking a provision of the state’s open records law that allows them to withhold information that violates “objective privacy.”

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

But when The Post and Courier reporters obtained the same document from court officials, not a word was spared. It showed the sides and shutters of the house among the details the police didn’t want you to see.

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This episode illustrates the various interpretations and misconceptions public officials may have about South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Its loosely worded exemptions open the door for officials to keep public records private and keep tax dollars away from citizens who paid for them.

As the Palmetto State celebrates its open records law during Sunshine Week, advocates warn that officials are increasingly using privacy protections and other exemptions to turn FOIA into a barrier instead of a tool for transparency and accountability. And law enforcement is often involved in this conversation.

SC The Press Association operates a statewide whistle-blower hotline and logs several calls each week from people struggling to get information from police authorities. Attorney Taylor Smith says he helps guide reporters who have trouble getting information. He has noticed a disturbing trend of heavily redacting and excluding public records and documents that make unnecessary references.

The Legislature released such information to help people make informed decisions about the safety of their communities and how law enforcement spends their tax dollars. Data is also important for news gathering, public understanding of government, and the democratic process.

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However, examples of law enforcement censoring their reports and providing certain details in public statements are a tactic that allows police leaders to control the narrative while leaving the public little opportunity to verify their claims.

In Greenville County, for example, sheriff’s officials withhold reports of high-profile incidents until they prepare “community information videos,” which include highly edited compilations of deputies’ body camera footage framed by department leaders’ accounts of incidents. The sheriff’s office is giving 45 days to process the video footage, as a teenager was shot in his waistband during a traffic stop in January. The gun went off as the agents tackled him to the ground.

In Columbia, the city’s police department relies on press releases and public statements by the chief, and reports on cases of interest are heavily edited before they are published, often with entire pages completely blacked out.

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

Columbia police comply with the state’s FOIA, said department spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons. He cited exceptions that allow its leaders to withhold information that would hinder the investigation.

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“It is at the chief’s discretion to release any information he deems pertinent, relevant or necessary to the general public,” Timmons wrote in an email to The Post and Courier.

But withholding key information, even when police officers have already released information about the crime through other channels, suggests the department is using a heavier hand than necessary, said Carmen Maye, a senior lecturer at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism. and mass communication.

When a body was found near the Williamsburg county line on a rural highway in Berkeley County last month, the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office issued a brief statement the next day.

Few details were immediately available. It took more than a week for the public to be told that the dead man was 18 or shot dead.

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Four days after the gruesome discovery, the county coroner identified the man and said his death was being investigated as a homicide. The cause of death has not been revealed and police said no arrests have been made so far. This prompted The Post and Courier to request an incident report. Under state law, a document is presumed to be available upon request because it discloses the nature, content, and location of the crime.

After repeated requests and more than a week after the body was found, the police finally filed an incident report and announced the arrest.

Asked about the delay, Berkeley Assistant Superintendent Jeremy Baker said the report was submitted as soon as possible. He said he sees no problem with the delay, especially if it means continuing the investigation — even if it means keeping the public in the dark.

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

“Incident reports are not immediate,” he said in an interview, emphasizing that reports go up the chain of command for approval and changes. “We will release them when we can.”

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It is assumed that records of all transactions carried out in the last 14 days are available on the requested date without written request. These reports serve not only as an investigative tool for the police, but also to inform citizens about the safety and well-being of their communities, recalling the nature and content of reported crimes.

However, the required content is often not found in the reports provided once. Key information about the suspected crime is either redacted or included in separate documents such as additional records. Lawyers argue that these are also public records available upon request. State lawmakers actually amended the state’s open records law in 1998 to clarify that supplemental records are public.

Berkeley County’s heavily redacted report makes no mention of the shooting except in the first line of the document, which identifies the incident type as “Information – Shooting.”

Columbia police are known for their penchant for black paint, even when they’re pushing for reform at the statehouse or city hall.

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Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier John A. Carlos II

At a state Senate subcommittee hearing in January, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook called for major changes to the state’s bail bond system, citing what he described as the worst case of the system’s failure.

Holbrook described in detail how, while out on bond for the alleged murder in July, one man was accused of killing another at a Columbia housing project. Looking into the details of the incident, the chief said 14 people were wearing electronic ankle monitors at or near the scene of the fatal shooting.

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

Officials requested all documents related to the Post and Courier case to verify Holbrook’s public statements by reviewing what was written in their records.

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The first page had only three sentences. They described the basics of the initial response to the shooting. Nothing in those three sentences confirmed that the 14 witnesses were wearing ankle monitors, and much of the other information Holbrooke shared with the subcommittee.

Timmons, a police spokeswoman, said the chief acted within his discretion and the department acted under FOIA exceptions to withhold information.

Open records advocates argue that the looser wording, without further explanation, gives police authorities the freedom to delete and encrypt a wide range of data.

Jay Bender, a longtime press association attorney and FOIA expert, said he doesn’t think the problem is the practice itself; It “fails to follow the law” and prompts some officials to “take advantage of the enabling language of the law to justify redaction.”

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Bender said the most common reason he hears to justify removing information is that the case is “under investigation.”

The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg ran into this problem recently while trying to report on the March 3, S. About the shooting at the state university, where a student was injured in a campus residence.

Campus Police Chief Tim Taylor told the reporter a week later on March 10 to file a FOIA request for the incident report, although the law does not require a written request, the newspaper reported. Taylor then referred a reporter to the university’s attorney, who said S. The government never released the records because they were part of an “active investigation that resulted in no arrests.”

Richard Whiting Attorney Columbia Sc

According to FOIA, this exemption is intended to cover sensitive corporate financial information or personal information that may be used in promotions aimed at people with disabilities. But the law makes clear that these provisions “shall not be construed to limit public and media access to information contained in public records.”

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In the fall, Charleston County EMS officials refused to release emergency response reports to Detention Docks in North Charleston, citing medical privacy exemptions related to accidents at the facility. Four employees died within three years.

Goose Creek officials recently cited an exception to their refusal to release crime scene photos and videos in the case, which ended last February. Two people have died in a local home during a federal tax fraud investigation.

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