Bluffton refuses to release documents about last fall's investigation of police chief

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Bluffton refuses to release documents about last fall's investigation of police chief

By RENEE DUDLEY rdudley@islandpacket.com 843-706-8138
Published Saturday, March 20, 2010   |  525 Words  |  news

The town of Bluffton has refused to release documents pertaining to an investigation last fall of Police Chief David McAllister -- records that an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association says should not be withheld.
The documents include sworn statements made by some of Bluffton's...The town of Bluffton has refused to release documents pertaining to an investigation last fall of Police Chief David McAllister -- records that an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association says should not be withheld.
The documents include sworn statements made by some of Bluffton's police officers to the town attorney in September about issues in the department. The statements were made in the presence of a court stenographer.
In a Feb. 16 letter in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Island Packet, town attorney Terry Finger said the town would not release the statements because doing so would violate the attorney-client privilege.
An attorney for the S.C. Press Association, however, rejects that assertion.
"It appears the involvement of the attorney was to shelter from public scrutiny the conduct of the police chief," attorney Jay Bender said. "That's an inappropriate use of the privilege and inconsistent with the notion that public officials work for the public."
The S.C. Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals have ruled on two cases involving the release of records pertaining to investigations of police personnel.
In a 1996 case involving the City of Columbia and a 2004 case involving the York County Sheriff's Department, the courts ruled that investigations of police personnel are not exempt from the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
McAllister was hired in 2006 and lead the department to a national certification by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which sets the gold standard for how departments should operate.
Hecame under fire last fall when a group of officers in the department complained about him to Finger and town manager Anthony Barrett.
Barrett first met with a group of officers Sept. 30 to listen to their grievances against McAllister. Barrett confirmed then that several officers reported that high-ranking officials in the police department made threats against those who planned to attend that meeting.
In an October e-mail, Barrett said nine employees complained about the department. An additional seven were interviewed by Finger, he wrote. There are 33 sworn officers in the department.
There has been at least four discrimination complaints and one lawsuit filed against the department since McAllister became chief.
A former Bluffton police lieutenant sued the town in November for wrongful termination, alleging she was laid off because McAllister "was afraid" she would report him for favoritism and a lack of professionalism.
Her complaint, filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleges that McAllister discriminated against her because of her age.
Three black officers who resigned from the department in 2008 have filed federal complaints alleging McAllister discriminated against them because of their race. One of the three, a woman, also alleged she was discriminated against because of her gender.
The complaints are pending.