S.C. weighs task force on police shootings

A commission of state prosecutors plans to consider forming a task force to study how officer-involved shootings and criminal allegations against law enforcement are investigated in South Carolina.

The S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination plans to take up the issue at its July 27 meeting in Columbia, said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who chairs the panel.

Stone said the time is right to review how South Carolina handles these cases and how the local approach compares to the best practices around the country.

The discussion would include the role prosecutors play in determining whether charges against law enforcement officers are justified and worthy of taking to trial.

“All of that is on the table,” he said.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who oversees prosecutions in Charleston and Berkeley counties, said she has been concerned for some time about the role South Carolina prosecutors play in the investigations of law enforcement officers and public officials — not just in shootings, but in other matters, as well.

“I’ve discussed my concerns with my colleagues and several of us believe we need uniformity in the way these matters are handled,” she said.

Wilson said The Post and Courier’s “Shots Fired” series last year raised additional questions in her mind about how these investigations are carried out around the state.

The series revealed that Palmetto State officers shoot someone on average every 10 days, and that state investigators often failed to answer key questions about what happened. It also reported that police failed to study the shooting incidents for lessons that could be learned.

The series also revealed that while the State Law Enforcement Division is seen as an independent arbiter in the cases, the agency, in reality, turns over its findings to local solicitors who in the majority of cases decide whether officers are cleared — the same prosecutors who work hand-in-glove with police.

Stone said the task force idea is timely given the national debate over officer-involved shootings and from the proposals that have surfaced at the Statehouse to clarify how these cases are handled.

One measure introduced this year called for police departments to have a written policy on handling officer-involved deaths. A separate bill called for SLED to be the default investigative agency for any officer-involved shootings that could have or did result in injury or death.

Both measures were pushed by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, an influential member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

South Carolina had a record 48 police-involved shootings last year, surpassing the previous high mark of 46 set in 2012. The tally included cases that received national attention, including the April 2015 fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer who now faces a murder charge.

Stone said the prosecution commission is a logical place to begin discussion over best practices in this year given that the panel includes not only prosecutors but also SLED Chief Mark Keel, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin and Leroy Smith, director of the state Department of Public Safety.

Wilson said she also has spoken with Malloy several times over the past year and is hopeful that “we can work with him and other legislators in creating legislation that raises the level of public confidence in the investigations of these types of cases.”