Police records request met with challenges
It’s unclear how many sex crimes with minors happened in Horry County over the past five years. And it’ll cost more than $23,000 to find out the case status of those crimes.
The Horry County Police Department, which oversees unincorporated county areas, has given conflicting responses when asked how many cases the department has had involving sex crimes with minors over the past five years, with numbers ranging from about 500 to 3,100. The department has confirmed that it does not know the status of the investigations and says it would have to open each case file to know what happened with each case.
The Sun News tried to verify HCPD’s numbers on several occasions, but county officials refused to answer questions, only stating by emails that they had already responded to the FOIA requests.
The HCPD is not alone in the difficulty it has tracking cases. The Sun News contacted several other police departments and sheriff’s offices and found a patchwork of systems for keeping and tracking cases. Some departments, notably the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department, were able to pull case statistics easily. For others, it was more of a challenge. For instance, Florence said they would have to go case by case to generate numbers on the status of cases for some of the years in question past 2015.
The Horry County Police Department, when asked for the number and status of cases involving criminal sexual conduct with a minor over the past five years, said a Freedom of Information Act request would take at least five months and cost more than $23,000 of staff time to review the records.
Krystal Dotson, spokeswoman for HCPD, provided the following quote by email when asked to give an estimate: “930 (hours) x $25 per hour = $23,250 which does not include the $.50 cost per page.”
HCPD’s copy rate quoted in Dotson’s email is in violation of South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, which states that public bodies “may not exceed the prevailing commercial rate for the producing of copies.” Market rate per page is about $.14.
When questioned by phone about the process of fulfilling the FOIA request, Dotson asked questions on what the story would entail, and asked “What benefit does the public have in knowing?”
The Myrtle Beach Police Department, when asked for similar data, reported 209 cases involving sex crimes with minors over five years. The department was able to provide The Sun News with a list of the cases and the status of each case from its computer system with the statuses listed as either closed, unfounded or active.
The Greenville Sheriff’s Office responded to a similar request within about 24 hours, noting the number of cases over five years was 115.
“Those numbers are derived through our crime analyst. … There’s several different computer programs our crime analyst uses to pull the numbers,” said Sgt. Ryan Flood, spokesman with the GCSO, who helped The Sun News obtain the statistics.
The Florence County Sheriff’s Office responded to a similar request within days, listing a total of 140 cases involving sexual conduct with a minor, aged 17 or younger from August 2015 to December 2017.
The data also showed the status of where each case stands.
FCSO spokesman Major Michael M. Nunn, said the department moved to a new records management system in 2015 that made it easier to pull the statistics on cases and status.
“To go back to 2012 as you have requested will require us to go back into the previous system and to review each record individually. There are 214 reports of Criminal Sexual Conduct in the old system. Each report will have to be manually reviewed to know which involved CSC with a minor. Not all reports result in charges or arrests,” he said by email.
He said their office would fulfill the request by going over the old records, but it would take time. Time which, under the Freedom of Information Act, they would charge a fee to do so. That fee is based on the lowest-paid employee who is authorized to gather the data.
Nunn said the hourly rate would be $30 and estimated the total cost would be $515.
The Wilmington, North Carolina, police department reports 521 cases of sex crimes against children in the last five years, including cases where a juvenile is also a suspect.
Jennifer Dandron, communications specialist with the Wilmington Police Department, said the department has closed about 79 percent of the sex offense cases involving underage victims they’ve seen from 2012 to 2017.
She said at least 413 cases out of 521 are closed. It was difficult to discern how the cases were closed, she said, and they may have resulted in arrest or otherwise closed.
Charles Francis, spokesman with the City of Charleston Police Department, was not asked to gather data, but was asked how the department would field a similar request.
He said by email that fulfilling the request “would entail a lot of work and we would ask the reporter to submit a FOIA request.”
Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, was asked his opinion on the FOIA requests and costs and said the folllowing:
“I think it’s outrageous that they would charge that amount of money to give the public access to what they’re doing,” Rogers said. “How can the public evaluate their effort if they can’t see it, and they shouldn’t have to pay $23,000 or more to get that information. It’s their information in the first place. They pay to gather it. They pay to store it. It’s the public’s information.”