Charleston refuses to provide officer's personnel records By David Slade (Contact) The Post and Courier Thursday, October 25, 2007
Charleston is refusing to produce the personnel records of police Pvt. Omar Brown, a candidate for mayor who has publicly claimed he was passed over for promotion because he arrested the children of higher-ranking officers.
The Post and Courier on Oct. 3 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for Brown's personnel records, including "internal affairs reports, performance evaluations, departmental commendations or reprimands, memoranda and similar communications regarding promotion or demotion, and any citizen complaints."
The city responded Wednesday, and said Charleston would withhold the information "on personal privacy grounds."
Attorneys for the newspaper and the South Carolina Press Association said the city's refusal to produce the records seems indefensible, based upon previous cases won by The Post and Courier and other newspapers, in which municipalities and law enforcement agencies similarly sought to block the release of police officers' records based on personal privacy.
"The records of a police officer, particularly if there is disciplinary action against them, may not be withheld on personal privacy grounds," said Jay Bender, the South Carolina Press Association's lawyer. "They need to read the case of Burton v. the York County Sheriff."
In the 2004 Burton case, the state Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court ruling that the York County sheriff had improperly denied a FOIA request for deputies' employment records. The Sheriff's Office had cited "personal privacy" and the same section of the state FOIA law that Charleston now cites.
Caroline Cleveland, an attorney hired by the city to respond to the FOIA request, was unwilling to be interviewed about the decision by a reporter Wednesday but said she'd be happy to speak with The Post and Courier's attorney.
John Kerr, the newspaper's lawyer, said the public has a right to know if there's anything to Brown's claims about his lack of promotion.
"He's a public official who has put this into play himself," said Kerr. "If he is telling the truth, that he wasn't promoted because he arrested police officers' children, that would upset me as a citizen."
In 2004, Kerr argued a case for The Post and Courier in which Summerville, Sullivan's Island and Isle of Palms had refused to provide public documents from a police officer's file on privacy grounds. Circuit Judge Thomas Hughston Jr. ruled in favor of the newspaper, saying that the municipalities could redact Social Security numbers but otherwise had to produce the documents requested.
Charleston Deputy Corporation Counsel Susan Herdina, in a letter to The Post and Courier about the FOIA rejection, said Brown had asked the city to not release his files.
"We are withholding these documents at this time at the request of Off. Brown and his representative," she wrote.
Brown did not return calls seeking comment.
At a candidate debate Oct. 8 an audience member asked Brown why he thinks he can be a leader when, after a dozen years on the Charleston police force, he's still a private. Brown gave this reply:
"When a lieutenant's son sells drugs, I have arrested him. When a captain's son breaks into someone's house, I'll put you in jail, and I have done that," he said. "Therefore, down the line, you cannot get promoted because you're willing, as a leader, to make a difference in the lives of those who have been victimized, and that's the kind of leader I am."
The following day, in a telephone interview, Brown refused to elaborate on his debate-night statements, but said the Police Department has "a culture of corruption."
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or firstname.lastname@example.org