By Thomas Sherrill | September 24, 2020 at 5:26 PM EDT – Updated September 25 at 12:23 PM
COLUMBUS COUNTY, N.C. (NEWS REPORTER) – For the past three weeks, the Columbus County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) has refused to release reports of criminal activity as it had done previously in accordance with North Carolina law.
Prior to Sept. 4, CCSO emailed an arrest report and incident report nearly every weekday to various media outlets in Columbus County, southeastern N.C. and northeastern S.C. Starting Sept. 4, the office’s public information officer stopped including incident reports in the email, although she continued sending arrest reports.
On Sept. 8, the email included a note stating, “Columbus County Sheriff’s Office is implementing a policy change in regards to incident reports. Additional information will be emailed to you in the near future.”
The sheriff’s office has not sent The News Reporter a copy of the new policy; however, the sheriff and his chief deputy have told the newspaper that they do not intend to provide any information about unsolved or open cases because it could interfere with investigations.
In a Sept. 11 phone interview, Sheriff Jody Greene claimed that missing out on grant money to combat elder abuse and victims’ fear of having their names in the newspaper justified his reasoning to stop sending out incident reports to media outlets.
“Well, right now that’s how it’s going to be, because we had meeting after meeting, and for you to get grant money, you’ve got to show a problem,” Greene said. “Well, I know there’s elder abuse going on in our county, but last year we had zero reports of it, and one of the big factors of it is, ‘Is my name going to be put in the paper?’ They don’t want the embarrassment of their name and their family’s information being put out in the public.” Greene continued, “Stuff like that hurts the county in getting grant money because that’s the money that we live off of.”
In follow-up communications with the CCSO, Chief Deputy Aaron Herring cited N.C. General Statute Chapter 132-1.4, subsection D, which says “A public law enforcement agency shall temporarily withhold the name or address of a complaining witness if release of the information is reasonably likely to pose a threat to the mental health, physical health or personal safety of the complaining witness or materially compromise a continuing or future criminal investigation or criminal intelligence operation.”
However, the CCSO’s new policy conflicts with state law, according to attorney Amanda Martin of Raleigh, who is representing The News Reporter, Tabor-Loris Tribune, WECT and WWAY in the matter.
In a letter Wednesday to Columbus County Attorney Amanda Prince, Martin cited N.C. General Statute Chapter 132-1.4, which under subsection C lists the information that shall be public records, which includes “the time, date, location and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.”
Martin said that citing subsection D of that statute to deny releasing any incident reports is mistaken.
“That subsection does not create a blanket authority for wholesale withholding of criminal information and criminal records. Rather, subsection D allows only the temporary withholding of just the name and address of a complaining witness,” Martin wrote.
Martin’s letter asks that CCSO resume sending incident reports, barring which, legal action will be taken.
Greene did not respond to a request for comment for this story by press time.
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