Attorneys for the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office have refused to release records detailing the arrest of an inmate who died after apparently committing suicide in the county jail last month.
Randy William Stevens, 44, was found dead in his jail cell early May 20 after officials say he hanged himself with bed sheets. Stevens had been held at the detention center after deputies arrested him a day earlier, charging him with public disorderly conduct. The State Law Enforcement Division continues to investigate his death.
Stevens had been arrested twice within the span of a week. After his May 14 arrest, he was released from jail May 19 only to be arrested again hours later on the same day.
The Herald filed a state Freedom of Information Act request, asking for copies of the incident reports detailing Stevens’ arrest on May 14, his subsequent arrest on May 19 and documentation of his death on May 20. This week, attorneys provided the newspaper with copies of the May 14 incident report, but denied The Herald’s request to release the other two reports.
In a statement based on the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigation into Stevens’ death, Sheriff Barry Faile said Stevens had been irate and combative with officers and refused medical treatment at Springs Memorial Hospital. Jail employees were unable to complete Stevens’ booking process, and put him in a private cell, common for intoxicated detainees.
Stevens’ death resulted in the firing of two jail workers, the suspension of three employees and reprimands for others. Officials have not released the names of those employees, but say the discipline stems from several policy violations revolving around routine checks made on inmates. Faile said Stevens’ death likely would not have been prevented even if employees followed all policies.
In a written response denying The Herald’s request for records from May 19 and May 20, lawyers with Davidson & Lindemann in Columbia cited exemptions in the state’s open records law which allows law enforcement agencies to withhold information that would harm the agency. Such information, according to law, includes details disclosing the identity of informants, the premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action and endangering the life, health or property of any person.
The Herald asked lawyers if they could provide the reports but redact information deemed harmful to the investigation. Justin Bagwell, of Davidson & Lindemann, agreed he would inquire about the request, but would not be able to provide an answer for several days.
Bagwell said his office was representing the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office in case a lawsuit had been filed in connection with Stevens’ death. Both Bagwell and court records confirmed that legal papers had not been filed against the detention center staff.
Faile on Wednesday deferred to his office’s attorneys about the police reports, saying once the Sheriff’s Office hands the case to lawyers, they are responsible for deciding what information would be released. Faile said he would release the reports if his attorneys advised him to do so. He said deputies issued a press release about the incident, saying “we have nothing to hide.”
“A press release is not a substitute for the actual report,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association. “The press and the public has the right to see the actual report. To withhold the incident report is ridiculous.”
Police reports, according to state law, are public records.
“When someone dies in government custody, it is imperative that the public get a full and prompt accurate report of what happened,” Rogers said. “Withholding these reports flies in the face of that and makes it appear that something is being covered up.”
Rogers added: “It’s an important case and there should be transparency ... police should not thumb their noses at state law.”