Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford just doesn’t understand that he, too, must abide by the law. On two occasions, separated by more than a year, he has failed to turn over public documents that might prove embarrassing to him and his department.
Most recently, after an Oct. 1 incident, Medford’s staff repeatedly denied Mountain Xpress access to a Sheriff’s Department tape of a local 911 call reporting an instance of domestic violence, transcripts of calls for service and records of radio communications.
These records are specifically named as public in North Carolina’s Open Records law, which says that such material shall be made available to the public upon request.
The requests, made over the course of the past two weeks, asked for public records as they relate to the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of that Oct. 1 domestic-violence call.
Medford’s refusal was done under counsel of department Attorney Robert Long, as well as Buncombe County Attorney Joe Connelly – both of whom should be implicitly aware of the state’s Open Records law.
Last year, Medford’s staff refused to comply with an Xpress request for tapes of radio communications during a May 21 public protest that occurred in front of the county jail.
Sadly, the Oct. 1 incident was played up by the Asheville Citizen-Times in its Oct. 26 issue as mere campaign mudslinging. We believe, however, the incident raises substantial, newsworthy issues that easily surpass political rhetoric.
Sheriff Medford’s failure to turn over public documents suggests he believes he is above the law. And it shows either a disregard for — or lack of understanding of — the function of a free press in a democracy.
Last year, Bobby Medford threatened one of our reporters during the process of our questioning how he handled the May 2001 “Reclaim the Streets” march, which culminated in a protest outside the county jail. At that time, the Sheriff told Xpress reporter Brian Sarzynski, “Now, when you put this in the paper, if you put it in there that we were illegal in what we done, I’m gonna have you sittin’ in front of a federal court system. Do you understand that?”
No lawyer we’ve contacted has found any conceivable legal grounds for that threat.
Earlier this year, Sheriff Medford, when contacted for our election coverage, had a spokesperson tell us that he will “not now or ever” speak with any representative of Mountain Xpress.
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department is not exempt from the N.C. Open Records laws. Our sheriff should not threaten journalists for pursuing their professional activities. And there is little to gain by his refusing to talk with a media outlet that questions his policies.
Last Saturday our concern for law enforcement in Buncombe County grew, unhappily, to include the ability of the local daily newspaper to investigate the news. In its coverage of the Oct. 1 incident, the Asheville Citizen-Times ignored key facts and quoted a local Republican Party official as saying that Xpress’ report was a personal, politically motivated attack.
As we tried to make clear in our coverage of the alleged domestic-violence incident, the current election was not a factor in the timing of our coverage. The incident took place on Oct. 1. The records of that event, now starting to be made public because of our work, could have been quietly destroyed after 30 days if we hadn’t demanded their release — and the cover-up might never have been revealed.
In an apparent effort to depict our coverage as overblown, the Citizen-Times reported that Xpress “sent announcements on its report to media outlets as far away as Atlanta.” Not only does the statement seem insignificant given the gravity of the story – it is incorrect. We contacted only local media outlets.
Our press release, issued the morning of the publication of our story, made it clear that a fellow media outlet was being denied access to public records. Apparently, our announcement failed to stir any professional sympathy in the hearts of Citizen-Times editors.
We don’t know what happened on Oct. 1, when the victim reportedly appeared in a neighbor’s door and said Sheriff Medford’s son had been beating her. We don’t know if the allegations contain any truth or if Medford’s son is guilty of any crime.
We do know, from the Citizen-Times report, that the victim’s mother thinks her daughter is afraid to file charges. Is she afraid, as many battered women are afraid, of retribution from her partner? Or is she even more afraid of the authorities who arrived when she cried out for help? We are left to wonder if this woman was denied her Constitutional rights when she was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, and to wonder if the discretion exercised by deputies assigned to her case was in any measure affected by the name of her alleged abuser.
If a law-enforcement agency is permitted to obstruct the public’s right to know, what safety can any of us expect to claim if our own rights are one day denied?
We are confident that the Sheriff, by refusing to turn over tapes, is violating a North Carolina law written to protect First Amendment rights. We also know that this isn’t the first time he has done this. And we know that the Sheriff resorted to threats in an attempt to curb our reporting, and after that, broke off all dialogue with us in an effort to disrupt or discredit our investigations.
Bad publicity is painful to those being investigated, but scrutiny of public officials and their documents is constitutionally protected, as it is essential to the workings of American democracy.
If Sheriff Medford wins the coming election, we hope he will get beyond the sting in our words and find a way to consider the wisdom within — and consider changing his approach to law enforcement, the media and public service.