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The S.C. Press Association has conducted a number of Freedom of Information compliance audits over the past decade, and each audit uncovers law enforcement agencies that disregard the law.
The trend continues with several recent events around the state.
A pro golfer is stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence by the Highway Patrol in Horry County, but the dashboard video of the stop isn’t provided in response to a request because the case is “under investigation.”
A City Council member in Lancaster has her name redacted from a police report.
The Department of Natural Resources refuses to release reports on boating accidents, including two accidents that killed four people on Lake Murray on one weekend.
A police chief in Columbia refused to release records of a collision between a car being driven by the newly elected mayor and a well- known and well-liked member of the staff of the dining room where many political leaders of the city and state meet for breakfast.
The most recent S.C. Supreme Court decision in a FOI case ruled in favor of the Charleston Post and Courier, holding that North Charleston’s refusal to provide access to police records on grounds that the case was “under investigation” was a violation of the law. There is no “under investigation” exception to the FOI’s mandatory disclosure requirements.
The DNR refusal to make boating accident reports available was repudiated by the S.C. Attorney General’s office, which concluded that the General Assembly had specifically changed the law to make such records public.
What the law enforcement agencies fail to recognize in each of these cases is that they work for the public, and the refusal to make records available for public inspection and copying diminishes public confidence in the work that is being done. In the Columbia case, the credibility of the police department is compromised severely no matter the results of the investigation.
The General Assembly, in enacting the FOI, stated that the law was to be interpreted in such a fashion that the public and its representatives could learn and report fully on the activities of public bodies, as quickly and inexpensively as possible.
Unfortunately for the reputation of all law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, too many departments act as if they are not answerable to anyone.
If a department is well-run and performing well, it wants its records public.
Departments that are arrogant, incompetent or ineffective want you to go away and stop asking for records. That latter attitude is reflective of a political culture that has existed in South Carolina since the plantation days when a small group in power made decisions and told the rest of the population that the right decision had been made, and that they should like it.
That is the political model that the Freedom of Information Act was designed to eliminate.