Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SC FOI audit shows continued problems

The AP and South Carolina Press Association, working with newspapers around the state, have produced a second freedom of information audit (the first, in 1999 when I was news editor at AP, showed 70 percent compliance), and -- surprise -- not much has changed.

Oh, maybe a few more police agencies give you the crime reports you are entitled to without question or the need to show ID, but a disturbing number still refuse to hand out the information to ordinary (read non-reporter) people or so heavily redact the reports that they are useless.

(To this, let me add a third horror story. Each summer my reporting class has to do the same thing -- go to the local cop shops and try to get reports without identifying themselves as journalism students. One department, West Columbia, uses what to my mind is a particularly dangerous dodge --saying the reports are tied up in the computer and no copies can be made available. The FOI law (pdf) provides that free copies of crime reports must be made available for inspection for up to 14 days after the incident. As more departments go electronic, this weaseling bears monitoring.)

Interesting here is the implication for bloggers and citizen journalists. No such access restrictions were faced by reporters from the major media each department had to deal with. So if we are moving into an era where we engage the public in more of the generation of stories about a community, and if I want to take the care that will give my work more credibility, where does that leave me when I show up on the doorstep of my local police or sheriff's department? We talk about people's right to know, but this might add some heft to those arguments, especially in South Carolina, which is now home to three such experiments: Bluffton Today, The Columbia Record and Hartsville Today.

Someone needs to sue departments (cover my costs, and I'll volunteer) like West Columbia and like Greenville, which is abusing a privacy section of the law to redact much of the information in what it will release. From one story:

Capt. Jinny Moran, who supervises the records management service division of the county's public safety department, said its policy on redacting information on incident reports is designed to protect crime victims and other innocent people.

For example, a suspect could find out the address of a victim through a report and retaliate, if that information weren't redacted, she said, citing a section of the FOI law that allows withholding such information.

But, of course, when it is to their benefit, police departments leak such information like a sieve, or just plain openly provide it at news conferences and the like. (Besides, in the case in question,the complaining party was another police department. Moran later said the records clerk went too far.)

So a suggestion: Wouldn't it just save lots of heartburn if the cops just routinely printed out a copy of each report, stuck it on a clipboard, and handed it to whomever requested? That's the way it used to be done in a lot of departments.

I do have one issue with the AP's writing/editing of these reports. I searched largely in vain in the main stories for the confrontational question to that police chief or sheriff who's not releasing records or who is charging $6 a page -- Why are you breaking the law? Certainly, the sidebars done by the papers in Charleston and Greenville (same links as above) were excellent in this regard. But those are not going to make it into many papers around the state, as they did not make it into The (Columbia) State.

The resulting main stories were weakened as a result, relying instead on Jeff Moore, executive director of the state sheriff's association, to stand as a stalking horse for all the law enforcement agencies with such pablum as: The good news is about three-fourths complied with requests, said Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association. "The ones that didn't, I don't know why they didn't," he said. In some cases, people may be confused about what has to be disclosed, he said. (Note to Jeff: The confusion in many cases is conveniently self-induced.)

So back to Reporting 101 (OK, 102) for that part of the series -- ask the tough questions of those really in the position to set the policy; not the records clerks, not even the captains in charge of the records rooms, but the sheriffs and police chiefs who set the tone by their, if nothing else, benign neglect. The one chief quoted was in Charleston's sidebar: Interim Police Chief Ned Hethington didn't hesitate when asked what the department will do. "We'll get it straightened out," he said. "We'll follow the law."

A few more on-the-record promises like that would have provided better grist for what should be a decisive follow-up not too many months from now..

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