Redaction Jackson

When those charged with enforcing the law take it upon themselves to parse the finer points of our statutes, ordinances and codes, interpreting the law for themselves, it is not unlike a registered nurse performing open heart surgery.

It is dangerous and it should be avoided entirely.

The law is a malleable, yet delicate thing. It should be handled by those whose profession, education and accreditation is the law. When law enforcement begins probing those waters, interpreting when it should be enforcing, the membrane that separates powers begins to lose its integrity; and when those who make the laws and those who enforce the laws become indistinguishable, we may find we are flirting with what is commonly known as a Police State.

The laws designed to keep our government open to the public whom it serves are no different than laws governing speed limits or laws that define murder or theft as crimes. These are the rules as adopted by the elected representatives of our society, rules that reflect the general attitude of the people and rules that have been upheld by the courts. And while one public body or another may, however futilely, challenge these open government laws, those challenges are made in the courtroom, by legal professionals. The law is not picked apart piecemeal before a judge can get ahold of it.

And yet, portions of our state’s Freedom of Information Act laws are being systematically ignored or subverted by some of the very people we expect to enforce the laws in our society. A recent review of incident reports indicate that the Richland County Sheriff’s Department appears to take a broad – and legally unsupportable – attitude toward what is and what is not exempt from public disclosure. As The Voice reported last week on a series of violent crimes in the Blythewood area, we were confronted with incident reports from those crimes that were streaked with heavy bands of black ink. Redactions of some of the most simple and basic information – the names, for example, of complainants, victims and witnesses – turned public documents into a farce of the law. Furthermore, the Sheriff’s Department could provide no reason, no rationale, for their apparent love affair with the Sharpie Marker.

Sadly, this was not the first time we had received from the Sheriff’s Department such a liberally mangled document and our past entreaties for an explanation were answered only with “It is our policy.” Yet, if one were to walk into the headquarters of the RCSD and ask to see the incident reports from the previous week – as we have on numerous occasions, and which is a public right provided by the law for any citizen – one will find two apparent anomalies. One, that the Sheriff’s Department either handles very few calls on a weekly basis or not all of the reports are being made available for public review, as required by law; and two, none of the information in these reports has been redacted at all. Not any.

Thus, the “policy” of the Sheriff’s Department appears to have no rhyme or reason to it; and the “policy,” if one actually exists, is a policy to violate the law. To date, the Sheriff’s Department has not been able to define for us their policy or to provide us with their legal justification for it.

The law, however, is quite clear. Incident reports are to be made available upon request. There is no waiting period. From these reports, only the names of undercover informants, investigatory techniques not otherwise known outside the government and contents of wire taps may be withheld. Information that may endanger the life or property of a person may also be withheld, an exemption that, as agencies combat gang violence, is understandable, but one that may be most widely abused.

It is a common misconception that there exists an exemption for the identity of minors. There does not. Not in the FOIA or in any other S.C. statute. Similarly, according to Bill Rogers, Executive Director of the S.C. Press Association, a law exempting the names of sexual assault victims has been ruled unconstitutional. That does not mean, however, that a newspaper would somehow be compelled to publish the names of victims of any crime or contact the victim for their input on a news story. Typically, The Voice does not, nor would any media outlet that wanted to retain the trust and respect of the public. Only unique circumstances, such as our report last fall on an armed robbery at the Dollar General in Ridgeway during which a victim acted with considerable courage when facing down a pair of gunmen, would ever lead us to contact the victim of any crime. And there is no reason of which we can readily conceive that would ever lead us to contact or publish the name of a victim of sexual assault.

But the law clearly places the responsibility for making that determination in the hands of the media, not in the hands of law enforcement. An atmosphere of trust, therefore, must exist between law enforcement and the media. The media should be able to trust law enforcement to disclose fully the contents of incident reports, and law enforcement should be able to trust that the media will use that information responsibly. For its part, this newspaper has a long track record of holding up its end of the bargain, and we have an equally as long history of mutual trust in our working relationships with other law enforcement agencies in our bailiwick – the Fairfield County Sheriff’s Office and the Winnsboro Department of Public Safety.

“It is vital,” Rogers says, “that the public knows how their police departments are conducting their business. It is also important for police departments to follow the law. They’re supposed to release information and they’re not doing it. And when they don’t, it makes the public think they’re hiding something.”

And we agree. But it is a new year, and the RCSD has just cut the ribbon on a new Region 6 headquarters here in Blythewood. Perhaps, then, we may also cut the ribbon on a new era of openness, disclosure and trust between the media and Richland County’s leading law enforcement agency.