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Heading for ‘Sunshine’ at the beach

Posted: March 9, 2012 10:58 a.m.
Updated: March 12, 2012 5:00 a.m.

This coming Saturday, publisher Mike Mischner, Localife/West Wateree Chronicle Editor Keri Todd Boyce and I (and our families) will attend the S.C. Press Association’s (SCPA) winter meeting. If we’re very lucky, we might pick up a few awards. At the very least, we’ll enjoy a lovely meal, a very nice hotel and one of the better beaches on South Carolina’s coast.

I’ll be doing one extra thing while I’m there: right before the awards luncheon, I’ll be sitting in on a 45-minute session on the S.C. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with a special focus on police reports.

This is an especially appropriate topic for the SCPA since this week is “Sunshine Week,” the one week out of the year where the entire newspaper industry takes a hard look at open government and FOIA issues.

This year, newspapers throughout the U.S. are urging citizens and civic organizations to “press state and local officials to find meaningful ways to participate in Sunshine Week to demonstrate that they, too, are committed to true transparency in government,” according to the official website.

Citizens and groups can do this by trying to get councils and other governing bodies to officially proclaim this week as Sunshine Week. A copy of a model proclamation can be found at www.sunshineweek.org/Proclamation.aspx.

 Two of the most basic tenets of FOIA laws are that government meetings are open to the public and that government records -- including law enforcement reports -- are available for public review.

That’s going to be the focus at the panel I’ll be attending Saturday morning.

I suspect SCPA Attorney Jay Bender will talk about a bill running its way through the State House that would make it more difficult to obtain police or sheriff’s reports.

In the C-I’s Feb. 17 editorial, we noted the bill’s introduction as one that would allow police to withhold “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.” If this thing passes, it would make it almost impossible to bring you our weekly crime report. Some people might cheer that while others would miss what is arguably one of the most popular items in this newspaper.

State Rep. Chris Murphy of Summerville introduced the bill, saying he did so to help protect victims and help law enforcement and prosecutors do their jobs.

I’m all for that, but not at the expense of not knowing what our law enforcement agencies are up to.

This was brought home for me big time in October when I reported on the indictment of former Camden Historic Landmarks Commission Chairman Clarence Mahoney for sexual assault in New Hampshire. When I called the appropriate police department there for a copy of the reports that led to his indictment, I was told I couldn’t have them. He was right -- under New Hampshire’s ridiculously titled “Right-to-Know” law, all police reports are considered protected “investigatory documents.”

Even though Mahoney has now indicated his intent to plead guilty in June (see our front page story here), I still do not have copies of those reports. Why would they prove helpful? Not in order to report salacious facts, but to gain insight as to why the state of New Hampshire felt it must prosecute him. Without them, we had no idea if they were following a wild goose chase or not.

But there is a host of other issues when it comes to police reports.

For example, former C-I intern Cassie Cope made headlines last month while writing for The Daily Gamecock. The Columbia Police Department refused to give her a police report on an alleged sexual assault near the University of South Carolina campus in a timely fashion. Worse, the Columbia PD’s spokesperson appeared to deliberately make herself unavailable when Cassie and a fellow reporter went there to retrieve the document in person.

Luckily, Chief Randy Scott ultimately let Cassie have the report -- with much of it heavily blacked out. He said he was trying to protect the victim. Some folks couldn’t help wondering if the police department was trying to protect itself.

In my case, some agencies black out all information about juveniles, making it hard to even know if a girl or a boy is involved, or whether they are 3 years old or 13. I have no interest in identifying a child victim by name or address -- but I do think it’s important to give readers something more than simply “juvenile.”

Also, the FOIA allows you -- yes, you reading this right now -- to walk into a law enforcement agency and ask for a police report without regard for who you are or why you want it. And they have to charge you a reasonable fee. They are very few exceptions.

They may not -- repeat, not -- ask you whether you are the victim or suspect. They may not -- repeat, not -- ask you what you intend to do with the report. They may not -- repeat, not -- make you fill out a written FOIA request, or demand any other paperwork for reports created during at least the previous 14 days. And they may not -- repeat, not -- charge you $5 for a single sheet of paper. While the word “reasonable” is a subjective one, I submit that $5 for even a six-page report is not reasonable.

These are all things I intend to try bringing up this Saturday. There will be several people on the panel, so I might not have time for all of it, but I plan to try. My goal is to make sure that my fellow reporters know not only their rights, but the rights of their readers. Those rights are the same. There is no difference.

In fact, I just learned that the SCPA has crafted a citizens’ guide to the FOIA. Check it out at www.scpress.org/citizen.pdf.

I may be a reporter, but I am still just a member of the public. You have the same right to these reports as I do.

So while I intend to enjoy the beach, I also intent to fight for your real right to know.

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