Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson01 PRINT LEDE.jpg (copy)

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson joined with county officials and state lawmakers proposed legislation to call for sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders during a press conference on Monday, March 4, 2019 in downtown Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Scarlett Wilson has brought some much-needed transparency to investigations of police shootings.

And it’s hard to say who should welcome that more — the community or the police.

On Thursday, the 9th Circuit solicitor announced standardized policies and procedures for officer-involved shootings, which include a mandate that no agency investigates one of its own — and ensure Wilson’s office will be involved in every case.

The new policy sets a time limit on investigations so they don’t drag on for years, and requires that information is shared with the victims’ family — and the public —as soon as possible.

That’s the least technical part of this, but perhaps the most important. Police shootings are often controversial, so letting folks know what’s happening could ease some of that tension.

“Because it is important that we are consistent, thorough and transparent, I have agreed to become more involved and to make charging decisions so that the public can have greater confidence in the investigation and the charging decisions,” Wilson says.

This isn’t flashy, and it’s not terrifically dramatic, but it’s sound policy. An impartial, independent review is the sort of common sense practice that can instill confidence in the justice system. And if people feel like they know what’s going on, they’re less likely to have a negative perception of police — or suspect a cover-up.

“Every side wants to see things done well,” says Dot Scott, president of the Charleston branch NAACP. “Our community will be better because of it.”

It’s a testament to Wilson’s diplomatic skills that every law enforcement agency in the circuit has signed on. She’s been working on this for more than a year, getting input from various police officials, community leaders and trial attorneys.

But it’s a shame she had to do it at all.

In South Carolina, solicitors don’t have the same powers as district attorneys in other states. They can’t conduct their own investigations and don’t have access to grand juries that hear evidence. They simply get to review files of an investigation and decide whether there are charges they feel meet the legal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

If a solicitor does get involved in an investigation, she loses her immunity from criminal and civil liability. The Legislature has refused to change this, so Wilson is taking a risk here.

But she says it’s worth it.

“We have asked the Legislature to extend our absolute immunity if they are going to require us to step out of our role as prosecutor,” Wilson says. “They have not done so, but this is too important of an issue to wait on them and because our community leaders and agencies have been so receptive, I’m willing to assume the risk.”

Wilson’s expanded role is key to this because, in general, no law enforcement agency in the 9th Circuit investigates their own officer-involved shootings now. Of course, they could — other departments around the state sometimes do. But that’s rarely a good idea.

Community activists, law enforcement and attorneys who gathered Thursday to announce the new policy agreed that this is the right track for these sorts of investigations.

“The solicitor has shown real leadership,” says Mullins McLeod, a local trial attorney with experience in police shooting cases. “She’s trying to ensure independence, transparency and fairness.”

That works both ways. Officers involved in a shooting will now have the solicitor look at their cases for the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard.” Right now, police can bring charges with simple probable cause.

“Investigations of (officer-involved shootings) are necessarily different than investigations of other citizens,” Wilson says. “We arm police officers with deadly weapons and expect them to use them when it is appropriate. The community pays officers to protect us and to act appropriately.”

The community, and the police, should expect no less than justice. With the solicitor’s office taking on more of a role in police shootings, the likelihood of that just went up.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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