SURFSIDE BEACH, SC (WBTW) – A Surfside Beach Town Council member says the town is operating like “Big Brother” after finding the personal records of a Florida woman, who does not live in Surfside Beach, were requested by the police department.
Nitza Melendez is the woman from Florida and she spoke with News13’s Taylor Herlong in a phone interview Thursday.
Melendez says she didn’t know the Town of Surfside Beach requested any background information on her until people from the media started calling. The Surfside Beach Police Department says background checks are justified by one of three ways: a new hire within the police department, investigation into criminal activity, and to make contact with someone during urgent circumstances.
As for Melendez’s background check, the Surfside Beach Interim Police Chief says it never happened.
“There was no background check done on this individual,” states Interim Chief Kenneth Hofmann. “That is a misrepresentation of what was done. We did what’s called an address search or a ‘persons search.’ Our goal in this situation was to try to locate someone and get in touch with them.”
Hofmann says the department used an online service called TransUnion to get Melendez’s information because they were trying to reach her brother after his home was considered a “public safety hazard” after Hurricane Matthew and it was considered a public safety threat.
“We were unable to reach Ms. Melendez’s brother, who is the deeded owner of the property and so, the police department, in cooperation with code enforcement and zoning, worked with them to try to come up with some information,” justifies Hofmann.
Council member Randle Stevens says all police needed was Melendez’s phone number, and requesting a report through TransUnioun was an invasion of personal information.
“Other than that, they didn’t need anything else. They didn’t need six pages of personal information, and that’s where I go and cut the line, I draw the line, and this seems to be an invasion of privacy,” expresses Stevens.
Hofmann says searches like the one conducted on Melendez are just part of the job for police.
“It’s public record,” explains Hofmann. “It’s available to anybody. When we conduct business in the public, when we get utilities, when we get a driver’s license, all that information is subject to FOIA and is considered public record. We just use a service that combines it into different databases to help us do our job.”
But, Stevens says now he questions what other people the town has requested information on without letting people know and where their personal information may end up.
“I think this is overstepping the grounds of government,” Stevens says flatly. “It’s a kin to big government, big brother.”
Hofmann says after they found the information about Melendez, it was given to the Director of Planning, Building, and Zoning with instructions to destroy it.
“It’s unfortunate that the information was released,” says Hofmann. “That is the concern to me. That this reflects poorly on the police department and the good work that all of our officers do to serve the community when the real question, I think, that we need to ask is ‘how did this get released to the public?’ It wasn’t by the police department.”
News13 has requested information that would reveal how many background checks have been requested by the Surfside Beach Police Department and the town’s administration since January. That information has not yet been released.
After a question of personal invasion was brought up by council leaders, News13 asked Interim Chief Hofmann if the police department plans to change how they handle background checks.
Hofmann’s response – no, it’s part of the job.