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Richland prosecutor calls for SC law to punish wayward officers in forum with top cops

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S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, left, speaks with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott ahead of a community forum on police policy on May 3, 2021. Adam Benson/Staff 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina should take its name off the short list of states without excessive force laws on the books — a legal hurdle that often prevents wayward police officers from being punished, Richland County’s top prosecutor said May 3.

“We need statutes that speak to what happens, so prosecutors can be more accountable to you,” 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson said during a 90-minute forum on police policy at the Busby Street Community Center.

It’s the first of what Gipson said is planned as a series of community gatherings to speak openly about police policies and improving public trust.

“2020 was a challenging year for all of us. As we were in the midst of a pandemic, there were issues that continued to demand our attention. They demanded our attention to the point they took center stage in the world,” Gipson said. “The sunlight on those issues has exposed the need to have more hard-hitting dialogue.”

Experts including Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor who specializes in policing issues, agreed with Gipson’s call for a use-of-force statute. He also suggested a stronger decertification policy that would prevent officers fired from one agency from finding work at another.

“It is very difficult (in South Carolina) from preventing an officer to continue to serve in that capacity even when it's shown they really shouldn't,” he said.

Much of the panel focused on the actions of police that drew international outrage, such as the murder of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 and two months earlier, the death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., in a police raid.

“What we're trying to do is let people know it's about keeping the peace, and you don't have to arrest someone to keep the peace,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.

As for Chuavin, “He should burn in hell for what he did. Simple as that,” he said.

Taylor was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville Metro Police officers who forced their way inside as part of an investigation into drug dealing operations and opened fire after Taylor’s boyfriend mistook them for intruders.

“You do not just shoot through walls, you don't shoot unless you have a target, that's not what cops do. You don't shoot unless you know what your target is, and it's got to be a dangerous target,” Lott said.

As police agencies work on their own reforms, state lawmakers said their work should include better funding for the Department of Mental Health and ensuring every police officer has functional body cameras.

“There are a lot of small police departments that have the same amount of force (as large ones) and we have not done what we need to do to make sure an officer is equipped with a body camera. That ought to be law and we ought to fund it,” said state Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins.

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

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