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Following nearly a year of unfettered access to police incident reports, Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister three weeks ago began limiting data available for public review in apparent violation of South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act.
In addition, the department's policy is to run "wanted" checks on those who ask to see the incident reports.
Interviewed Saturday about the changes, McAllister asked an Island Packet reporter to delay publication of the story because he was already "taking heat" from town officials on unrelated issues. He declined to say what those issues were, saying only that he didn't "need the bad press."
On Friday, the department released only a list of calls officers answered. That list included dates and times; street addresses; and the types of calls, for example "vehicle stop" or "noise disturbance."
The list did not include suspect or victim information or any written narrative from officers -- information that under state law should be available to the public. Without that information, it is impossible to assess the severity of an incident or even who was involved.
Moreover, the data available for review included calls from only six days -- Sept. 25 to Sept. 30, another apparent violation of the law.
Reports "for at least the 14-day period before the current day" are to be available for public review, according to the Freedom of Information Act. It isn't clear why there were no calls listed for Thursday and Friday, Oct. 1 and 2.
"They're intentionally violating the law," Jay Bender, a lawyer for the S.C. Press Association, said of the change in policy. "They're intentionally avoiding their responsibility to the public. What they're giving it's not sufficient."
Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said she was unaware of the policy change that has gradually limited the amount of information available from the police department over the past three weeks.
"I'm concerned," she said. "That progression is not right."
Sulka and Mayor pro tempore Fred Hamilton said they would make sure the full reports are available for public review in the future. They also said they would talk to McAllister and town manager Anthony Barrett about the issue.
Barrett did not return four calls and an e-mail seeking comment, though he did communicate with Sulka and Hamilton on the issue Saturday, both said.
Chief McAllister said his lawyers told him the list is all he's legally obligated to provide. He said, however, he will provide more information in the future.
"We just don't want to get ourselves in trouble" by releasing too much information, McAllister said. "I'm just doing what the lawyers told me."
<strong>INVESTIGATING THE PUBLIC</strong>
The Freedom of Information Act says full crime incident reports "must be made available for public inspection and copying during the hours of operations of the public body without the requestor being required to make a written request to inspect or copy the records when the requestor appears in person."
It also says that certain information -- names of juveniles or victims of sexual assault, for example -- may be redacted.
The law does not require requestors to provide their names when asking for reports, Bender said. However, the Bluffton Police Department has a policy of running a "wanted" search on all members of the public who ask to see reports, McAllister confirmed Saturday.
McAllister declined comment when asked about that policy.
The Island Packet first asked to regularly review Bluffton Police Department incident reports in late 2008.
McAllister created a media clipboard -- hung on a wall at the Persimmon Street station -- where full incident reports were available for review.
About three weeks ago, important information on the multi-page reports -- including the incident location and information on the suspect, complainant and victim -- was redacted.
The Packet objected to the redactions. The following week, McAllister explained the change was the upshot of a disagreement he'd had with a Bluffton Today reporter. He declined to discuss the specifics of the dispute, only that it had to do with an accusation that certain reports had been withheld.
On Sept. 25, McAllister released only the front page of each incident report -- a document that generally does not provide a "narrative" -- details of the incident as written by the responding officer.
The Packet objected because the law says that the full report -- including supplemental pages -- must be made available.
McAllister responded that he had talked to lawyers recommended by town attorney Terry Finger and with a lawyer from the S.C. Municipal Association. Both told him he wasn't obligated to provide full reports, McAllister said. They told him the list of calls was sufficient, he said.