The City of Aiken has resumed the release of incident reports involving juvenile defendants to the public, according to City Manager Richard Pearce, reversing a suspension of those releases announced last week.
Despite that dramatic turn of events, questions remain about the City's ongoing compliance with state law. Although the City says it has now “returned” to the prior policy of routinely releasing such documents, it has yet to verify the report involving a September sex crime at Aiken Middle School was actually handled in that manner.
Pearce met with Aiken Standard staff on Monday to admit a mistake was made with the suspension of releases announced last week and the City would therefore correct it.
“I'm coming here out of humility,” Pearce said while at the Aiken Standard office on Monday. “We made a mistake, and we're going to correct it.”
The initial press release from the City, which was given to media outlets on Wednesday, was prompted after The Jail Report, a weekly newspaper and Facebook page, issued a request for information on an alleged sexual assault at Aiken Middle School.
A woman representing herself as an Aiken Middle School parent sent The Jail Report a private message on Facebook about an alleged sexual assault at the school, according Greg Rickabaugh, publisher of The Jail Report.
He requested the incident report of the alleged assault from Public Safety, but was told he needed to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the information. The Jail Report's request led Public Safety to issue a statement on behalf of the City detailing the immediate suspension of the release of any reports or information involving juvenile defendants – potentially breaking state law under the Freedom of Information Act.
The action of the department potentially meant the public would not know when, where or even if any crime involving minors had occurred.
The department denied Rickabaugh's request, saying it couldn't release even the most general information on juvenile defendant cases. Law enforcement is barred from naming juveniles except in limited circumstances, but standard practice is for general details regarding incidents to be released.
City Solicitor Paige Tiffany sought clarification on the matter of releasing such information from Attorney General Alan Wilson on Dec. 12. Referring to a section of South Carolina code regarding the release of law enforcement records involving juvenile defendant – S.C. Code, Section 63-19-2030 – Tiffany asked for clear opinion on the law.
The incident report the City had refused to release was given to Aiken Standard on Monday. It indicated the department responded to a report of criminal sexual conduct on Sept. 16 at Aiken Middle School. The case involves charges of criminal sexual conduct with a minor, second degree. The department defines “criminal sexual conduct” as a person engaging in sexual activity with a victim who is 14 years of age or less, but who is at least 11, according to Lt. Jake Mahoney with Public Safety.
When pressed on the question of whether the report was ever made available for public review at the Aiken Department of Public Safety, City officials could not or would not verify that it had been.
Aiken Standard staffers and other media outlets look through a report log at both Public Safety and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office on a daily basis, and the report of a sex crime at a local school would typically trigger publication of that information.
When asked directly if the stated policy of making such reports available was followed, Mahoney said the report was presumed to be in the incident report book at some point and was not “intentionally excluded.”
“The reports stay there for about two weeks,” Mahoney said. “We generally purge them.”
Pearce said he would seek verification of the report's initial availability during a morning meeting with the Aiken Standard, but never confirmed it despite numerous attempts to follow up with him via email and telephone.
The incident report does not go into any detail about the alleged assault, only stating the date when the responding officer received the report and that the case is still under investigation. One suspect was arrested on Oct. 24 and released to a guardian.
“Most juvenile reports are handled by specially trained juvenile investigators,” Mahoney said. “So the initial reports are merely a starting point for those investigators.”
In a letter to Aiken Standard, Pearce said the City has no intent to “shelve” any police reports.
“What I have included with this letter is what we have typically provided,” Pearce said. “We seek to operate within the bounds of state law, not to its exclusion.”
Pearce said he met with City staff on Friday and Monday morning to discuss the issue – later issuing a press release reversing the City's initial statement. Pearce said in the meantime, he has directed Public Safety and City legal staff to again review the S.C. FOIA request on juvenile criminal cases.
“I am real happy they came to their senses and are following the law on openness,” Rickabaugh said. “The public has a right to know what crimes are being investigated by Public Safety. I hate it took this long to get to this point.”
• News editor Haley Hughes and crime reporter Teddy Kulmala contributed to this story.