Crime

Horry County police routinely black out public records, sidestepping open records law

Horry County Police conceal information in police reports

Horry County Police will frequently provide public police reports that are heavily redact. The practice seems in violation of state code.
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Horry County Police will frequently provide public police reports that are heavily redact. The practice seems in violation of state code.

Public reports from Horry County Police are often filled with redactions and some appear to be in violation of state code that restrict what type of information can be withheld.

Law enforcement agencies in South Carolina have some protections in redacting information. The state’s Freedom of Information Act is intended to be narrow and specific, but it’s widely used by the county police department.

“The media is reporting so the public can protect themselves,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

The Sun News tried for weeks to talk to Horry County officials about the issue. Chief Joe Hill and acting spokesman Capt. John Harrelson referred questions to Horry County spokeswoman Kelly Moore.

In an email, Moore said, “Horry County Government remains committed to working together with all of our media partners, and will continue to improve our technology, systems and processes to best serve the public interest, providing critical information to our citizens and protecting individual rights.”

When The Sun News has requested the cause for redactions, county officials routinely cite the portion of FOIA that allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information still part of an investigation. But, the state’s law only covers redactions for items that would harm an investigation and Rogers said information should not be withheld just because it’s part of an investigation.

“That’s often abused,” Rogers said.

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Horry County Police reports are often filled with redactions. Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

Police also can redact information about criminal informants or an unusual invasion of privacy, Rogers said. The public’s right to know often trumps someone’s privacy, he added.

Horry County Police officials will often cite health privacy laws for their redactions. But, according to a memo by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice, the law only applies to health care providers. That would include groups like doctors, hospitals and billing agencies.

In fact, that federal memo specifically mentions that most state and local police agencies are not subject to federal health care privacy rules.

“It’s concerning to me that police make up their own laws,” Rogers said.

[Redacted]

Often times reports from Horry County Police are filled with redactions, making the crime’s narrative confusing and hard to follow.

It’s a practice that has gone on for years, under multiple people who release reports. From 2015 through 2018, Lt. Raul Davis, ex-spokeswoman Krystal Dotson and current media contact Capt. John Harrelson released reports filled with redactions. Some examples include:

  • A February 2017 murder report had several parts that were heavily redacted. The location where police found the gun was redacted. The report also says that “the complainant who was outside the residence,” the rest of the sentence was redacted.
  • In a robbery report from May, the provided report reads “Complainant stated subjected walked in and used the restroom along with another black male in a [redacted] shirt and a [redacted] hat.” Those redactions were “white button shirt” and “white hat,” according to an unredacted version of the report obtained by The Sun News.
  • On June 22, a domestic report redacts a “review of the suspects [redacted information] within the past 10 years.” It’s safe to presume that information includes his criminal history, including previous domestic violence convictions. That suspect’s lengthy criminal history is easily found through an online criminal background check via the state’s public index.
  • In a May 2017 report, the name of the hospital an attempted-murder victim was omitted.

That’s not to say every report is riddled with redactions. Occasionally reports are provided with few or no redactions other than the numerical part of an address.

According to the Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, public officials are encouraged to disclose information to the public.

“As public officials, the people of this State have placed a great amount of trust in our ability to perform the tasks of government,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said.

“When in doubt — disclose,” Governor Henry McMaster said.

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An entire paragraph of a Horry County police report is blacked-out Josh Bell jbell@thesunnews.com

Other agencies’ reports

There is often a two-way street between redactions and the press, Rogers explained. For example, if police don’t want to provide an exact address, they can name the block so the public knows if they are safe.

Rogers said he hears about problems with police redactions in pockets of South Carolina, but many complaints come from Horry County.

Other police agencies in Horry County are less restrictive in their reports. Myrtle Beach, for example, provides reports with few, if any redactions. Their reports often include names of victims and suspects, addresses and full police descriptions of the events.

Myrtle Beach Capt. Joey Crosby said they only redact personal information and items required by law from their reports.

When people look at reports, they will contact the department and say they experienced something similar, Crosby said. It can also help people make the appropriate steps to make sure they are safe. For example, if there are reports of presents taken from cars around the holidays, locals know to take theirs inside the home.

“Also it kinda helps the public see what’s happening in the community,” Crosby said.

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