Senate panel: SLED should investigate all officer shootings

COLUMBIA — The State Law Enforcement Division would have to investigate all cases where a police officer kills or seriously injures a suspect in South Carolina, under legislation approved Thursday by a Senate panel.

The three bills passed by a subcommittee are the latest efforts to create more transparency and accountability for police after a North Charleston police officer was charged with murder in the shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed man running from a traffic stop on April 4.

Except for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, senators know of no law enforcement agencies in the state already have SLED investigate officer-involved shootings. But Sen. Marlon Kimpson said it is important to put that standard practice into law.

“A police department investigating itself and its own employees for an officer-involved shooting raises some serious conflict of interest issues,” said Kimpson, D-Charleston.

No one from Richland County was at the hearing. But last week Sheriff Leon Lott sent out a news release explaining why he handles all investigations involving his deputies internally. He pointed out that unlike other South Carolina law enforcement agencies, he has a citizens review council. He said his department also has its own crime lab to analyze evidence.

“We are only doing what large professional law enforcement agencies across the nation have the capabilities, expertise and experience, to do every day,” Lott said in his statement.

SLED chief Mark Keel said his agency is willing to do all investigations, as long as senators limit them to deaths and serious injuries at the hands of police officers.

“Obviously, there is legitimate uses of force that occur where somebody is scraped or somebody ends up with a cut,” Keel said. “Certainly, there’s no way we could investigate every one of those.”

The full Senate committee may discuss whether the proposal should also have the attorney general, instead of a local prosecutor, review the investigation and decide whether an officer should face charges.

A second bill passed by the subcommittee would require all police agencies to write policies about how they will investigate police shootings, but senators said they only need that bill if the proposal to have SLED investigate the shootings doesn’t pass.

The third bill passed asserts the rights of people to videotape police in public and allows people to sue if officers stop them from taping or takes their cellphone or video camera.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked senators if they could expand the bill to support any taping in public, whether it involves police or not.

The shooting in North Charleston took place in Kimpson’s district and he thanked law enforcement for working with senators on the three bills and on efforts to get body cameras on more South Carolina officers.

“Over the last several weeks, law enforcement has largely been really cooperative in working with this Legislature to bring transparency and accountably to the forefront,” Kimpson said. “I applaud all of you.”