The Aiken Department of Public Safety will begin archiving public records after an order from the city manager's office, a move prompted by press scrutiny into the department's release of information regarding a sexual assault at a middle school.
The department will continue its longtime policy of publishing information about incidents occurring within city limits and will now archive them for six months. Those reports are kept in a binder in the lobby of Aiken Public Safety headquarters at 251 Laurens St. for two weeks, at which point they will be removed and archived.
City Manager Richard Pearce said in a statement this week that he directed the department to do so “in light of recent events.”
“Recent reports have called into question our policies in handling juvenile cases,” he said.
The City released a statement on Dec. 18 that was prompted by a request for information from The Jail Report, a weekly newspaper, on information regarding a sexual assault at Aiken Middle School.
The publisher of the newspaper submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, as directed. Aiken Public Safety then released a statement on behalf of the City detailing the immediate suspension of the release of reports or information involving juvenile defendants until the S.C. Attorney General released an opinion on whether or not they could release such reports legally. The action meant the public, potentially, would not know when, where or even if any crime involving juveniles had occurred.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed the City's request had been received but could not say when the attorney general would release an opinion.
The department's longtime policy of any records involving juveniles allowed them to release the information as long as a juvenile's name and any identifying information were redacted.
The Aiken Standard published a story and an editorial regarding the issue later that week. Pearce met with Aiken Standard staff on Dec. 23 and said the City made a mistake with the suspension of the records.
“When I received this release that stated juvenile reports were going to be withheld, I immediately notified staff involved that this policy was not acceptable and had to stop,” Pearce said this week. “A subsequent press release was sent out saying we would keep posting these incident reports as we have been doing all along.”
Pearce said only one incident report was withheld after the original press release was sent out, and that report was posted in the book by Dec. 23.
“In the past – and in compliance with state law – we have posted incident reports for two weeks, and after we removed them, they were shredded,” he said. “Our review of our records indicates that the reported Aiken Middle School incident that occurred in September was marked as we routinely do before we put it in the two-week notebook.”
Pearce said the six-month period is “more than state law requires.”
“But we will do this anyway,” he added. The reports are expected to be posted by noon the next business day.
“On a final note, the Aiken City Manager's Office at no time has directed that any public information be withheld from the public,” Pearce said. “Instead, the City of Aiken ensures that the public will have full information about our operations.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.
He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.