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Thank goodness for S.C.’s FOIA

Posted: October 7, 2011 2:35 p.m.
Updated: October 10, 2011 5:00 a.m.

As a reporter, I am very thankful for South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). You should be, too.

I realized how grateful I am for our state’s version of this important law while writing about a former prominent Camden resident’s indictment in New Hampshire on sexual assault charges for Friday’s paper.

Astute readers may have noticed something lacking from that story: information gleaned from police reports. It is something I take for granted here in South Carolina, but that -- by law -- I could not obtain from the Derry (N.H.) Police Department.

I will never forget the answer I received a Derry police captain when I asked for a copy of a report: “You will not find a law enforcement agency in New Hampshire that will provide you with a copy of a report before an accused person is either convicted or acquitted.”

I was absolutely stunned.

Here, I receive daily emails from the Camden Police Department (CPD) containing copies of incident reports from the previous day (or weekend). I also go to the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office, usually three times a week, to print out copies of its reports.

Police or sheriff’s reports are absolutely essential to my work here at the C-I. Without them, our weekly crime report would be skimpy at best, non-existent at worst. Aside from being our most popular feature (at least on Wednesdays), the crime report serves as a barometer of how things are going here in Kershaw County. Is there more crime or less? What kind of crimes? Where did they occur? Who was involved?

They are also crucial when it comes to individual stories, such as Friday’s. Sometimes incident reports are the only way for us to know exactly what people have alleged is going on.

The C-I, and most newspapers in South Carolina, work on the principle that documentation is key -- that the printed word is more substantial than someone’s spoken word. For example, if someone calls me complaining about the city or county, I usually ask them if they’ve filed a lawsuit. That may be bad from the “Americans are always suing each other” perspective, but it lends more weight to an individual’s claim that they’ve been wronged by some institution -- wronged enough to actually take someone to court.

Where law enforcement’s concerned, I have no reason to doubt what either Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews or their officers tell me about any particular case. But having something in black-and-white makes me feel more confident that I’m reporting what they’ve said accurately.

No disrespect to any of them, but sometimes what the chief or sheriff tell me isn’t exactly what their officers wrote in a report. Usually, that’s a matter of their not having been briefed on something before I’ve gotten a hold of the report; sometimes it’s because they, too, are going by what someone said to them.

Also, reading a report may spark certain questions about a case I might not otherwise know to ask based on what someone’s told me over the phone. For example, are suspects with the same last name actually related to one another? Am I understanding the timeline of events correctly?

Incident reports help me, as a reporter, tell the story better. That’s not to say written documents can’t be wrong. Far from it. Again, it’s that “weight” thing -- having something written on piece of paper (or, today, in electronic form) makes it more “real.”

In the case I reported Friday, there were crucial questions left unanswered by both the indictment -- the one piece of written documentation I did have access to -- and those officials I interviewed. If the case had taken place here in South Carolina, there would have been a better chance of those questions being answered. Such reports contain both a narrative (what the responding officer is reporting) and information blocks (for vital statistics information, from someone’s age to their relationship to the suspect).

But, thanks to New Hampshire’s weak “Right-to-Know” law, I was unable to obtain any reports about the incidents leading up to the suspect’s indictment. Therefore, I was never able to get those questions answered.

Thanks to some help from both here in South Carolina and New Hampshire, I traded emails with a crime and courts reporter in that state and learned that incident reports are classified as “investigatory documents” and, therefore, exempt from release to the press or public.

Here in South Carolina, our FOIA allows not only me to obtain copies of police and sheriff’s reports, but you, too.

That’s right: any citizen can walk into the CPD or KCSO (Elgin PD, too), ask for any report and they have to produce it for you, no questions asked. And they can only charge you a reasonable fee for copying the report.

Thanks to the efforts of the S.C. Press Association and media attorney Jay Bender, who helped write our FOIA, we all have the right to know what’s happening in our law enforcement agencies.

I hope the New Hampshire reporter I spoke with is inspired by South Carolina’s openness and starts leading the way to changes in that New England state.

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