Roundtree’s Team Needs First Amendment Refresher Course

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I saw this coming way back in January, and I knew it was going to be a problem. But before I get to our latest odd tidbit in the still-developing relationship between Augusta’s top cop and the Fourth Estate, the past once again is prologue.
In our first “get to know you” meeting with newly sworn in Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree, his freshly minted public information officers were busy preparing a new “RCSO Media Policy” for local reporters and their respective employers in print and broadcasting.
It was not in hand for that January 8 confab, which was basically just a get together aimed at announcing that, for the first time in decades, reporters were not allowed to directly communicate with department employees at crime or accident scenes, unless that communication was taking place under the supervision of one of these new PIOs.
That announcement went over with the popularity of a Baby Ruth afloat in the Bushwood swimming pool.
One of the new PIOs explained at the time that she didn’t think it was “fair” that some media outlets seemed to get all the “scoops” while others lagged behind, and this new policy was aimed at leveling the playing field.
When the actual written policy was put out three days later it did not make many of us feel much better. Right there in black and white, the motive of the new rule was spelled out for all to see, and we quote: “The purpose of this policy is to ensure that all media sources receive the same information regarding crimes and other incidents from a central source rather than multiple information streams from several sources.”
To a few of us who have spent years and even decades breaking some of those stories, what this was was an attempt to handicap us and, in essence, put inexperienced (and yes, some lazy) local media in a position to “compete.”
To their credit, the department has largely backed away from its original hard line in these situations. It became obvious pretty quickly that routine conversations between reporters and officers were going to happen, and the rule that all such interaction had to be vetted through a PIO simply did not work.
There were other troubling aspects of the written policy that were flat out unconstitutional, or against Georgia’s Open Records Laws. Specifically, mandates that no pictures of RCSD personnel were to be released, that no one arrested under the age of 17 would be identified and that contents of suicide notes were never to be revealed.
All of those things happen routinely, of course, in agencies all over the country. Because it is the law.
When I pointed out the problems, my concerns were laughed off as inconsequential. I was then told the policy was copied verbatim from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, and that it was essentially their policy. When I asked CCSO Captain Steve Morris about that, he said that they never really operated under any such policy, and that perhaps it was just something submitted as “paperwork” they put together while be accredited. Just to be certain that the policy was not “the rule” in Columbia County, I requested copies of the last three suicide notes they filed while processing such cases.
I got them in about 20 minutes. Not because the CCSO wanted to release the notes, but because the law requires they release the notes.
And so it is with virtually all materials connected with any investigation, in every county in every state in the union. Once a case is closed, the public and the press are allowed access to almost every shred of material in the files. With the exception of very specific details and images, all collected data should be available for the asking.
So what in the world were Richmond County lawmen thinking when they reportedly told officials at Augusta Mall that they could trust them to refuse press access to security camera footage used in a recent accident investigation involving the dramatic resuscitation of a nearly dead toddler who was pulled from a mall fountain?
The amazing story of the near fatal drowning involving 2-year-old Alayna Rose captivated Augustans for several days, especially when we learned that her fall into the fountain had been captured on tape. The footage proved that the mishap occurred quickly, and that the girl’s mother had not been deficient in any way. The tape was vital in the quest to learn the truth.
Quite naturally the tape was requested by a TV reporter when the episode was declared an accident and the investigation was officially closed. Quite logically and legally RCSO PIO Shane McDaniel sent a copy of the footage to Christie Etheridge and her colleagues at WRDW-TV News 12. Her report aired August 30 at 5 p.m.
Poop meet fan.
I am not sure who complained first, officials with the mall who had been promised the footage would be kept from public release, or the unknown officer who made the ill-advised (and likely illegal) promise in the first place. Regardless, somebody got a hold of McDaniel and ordered him to tell News 12 to pull the footage and not use it again.
Thankfully, the folks at News 12 know the law better than most and told the PIO “no.”
That footage is 100 percent accessible as part of a closed public safety investigation, and shame on the RCSO brass for not knowing that. Also, whoever promised the mall that the footage would be off limits should either be disciplined for lying or sent back to cop shop to be reminded that promises like that cannot and should not be made. The mall was not being kind as they were turning over that tape; they had to do it, as required by law. I hope they did not hesitate to get that footage to investigators, because only a real butthead would think twice about such.
Sadly, as legal as it was for News 12 to request, receive and broadcast that footage, the sheriff was not a happy camper. His man McDaniel had made a nice request of the station, and he had been denied. As a result of crossing the department, News 12 was told that no RCSO personnel were to do on camera interviews with them, for any reason, under the orders of the boss.
And for about three weeks, the order stuck. I am told after some discussion of legal action, cooler heads have prevailed, and the order has been lifted. Good for all involved; it was pure spite for the sheriff to give such a command, and he damn well oughta know better.
I do miss them though. Be sure to tell my friends at News 12 they are welcome here with me on Exile Island any time!

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