Body Camera Law

Gov. Nikki Haley thanks Rep. Wendell Gilliard for his help after she signed into law a measure to equip all South Carolina police officers with body cameras Wednesday, June 10, 2015, in North Charleston. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers says South Carolina should have harsher prison sentences for hate crimes.

And Wendell Gilliard says, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

By now, the state representative should just have the slogan printed on his Statehouse business cards.

Six months ago, a House Judiciary subcommittee approved Gilliard’s own hate crime legislation, which would tack on two years to the prison sentence of anyone who attacks or kills a person because of their race or religion.

The Charleston Democrat has been working on this idea for years, way before the massacre at Emanuel AME. But his efforts never caught on, even though South Carolina is one of the last states in the country without hate crime laws on the books.

Now, his colleagues have taken his idea and his momentum. If Gilliard wasn’t such a nice guy, he might have taken last week’s announcement personally. Because this is getting ridiculous.

And it’s getting to be a pattern.

• Nearly 10 years ago, Gilliard warned that smartphones were distracting motorists and proposed a ban on texting and driving. Crickets.

The next year, Republicans suggested the same idea and — presto — it became law.

• In 2011, Gilliard announced that cellphones in prisons were getting people killed. His call for a crackdown went unanswered.

Seven years later, the worst prison riot in a quarter-century broke out at Lee Correctional Institution — and seven people died. In the aftermath, public officials blamed cellphones for playing a key role in the riot ... and once again called for a crackdown.

• A year before a North Charleston police officer shot Walter Scott during a traffic stop, Gilliard said the state should arm every cop with a body camera.

After Scott was killed, other lawmakers jumped on the idea and passed their own legislation.

Gilliard was on a crusade to ban synthetic pot before DHEC did just that, and years ago — as a Charleston city councilman — he wanted to install cameras in peninsula neighborhoods as a crime deterrent.

Which the city eventually did.

None of this is meant to suggest Gilliard’s middle name is Nostradamus but, time and again, he has proven ahead of his time. Some of this is just South Carolina; Gilliard is an active politician serving in a routinely reactive Legislature.

And Statehouse folks rarely find a problem they can’t put off for a few decades.

Hate crimes is a good example. Since 1978, when California passed the first such law, most other states have followed suit. Which is good, because prejudice is trending. Between 2016 and 2017, hate crimes increased by 17 percent.

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But four years after a young white man killed nine people in a Charleston church, South Carolina has yet to do anything — even though Gilliard is on his third attempt to pass such legislation.

It’s not like he is working alone. Gilliard says he picked up the mantle from veteran state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, and House Judiciary Chairman Peter McCoy and several other Charleston lawmakers are co-sponsors on his bill. None of that is likely to preclude this new push. Because, politics.

The legislators who joined the fray last week propose a more complex system for increasing penalties than Gilliard. He’s offered to let them amend his bill rather than starting the process over.

“If there’s some different idea, I’ll listen to it,” he says. “But this bill has a heartbeat — it’s due to get a hearing in January.”

That’s not going to happen, however, because that’s not how the Statehouse works. It isn't even partisan — both Democrats and Republicans have co-opted Gilliard’s ideas — but it is a tad cliquish. And Gilliard, a native of Charleston’s East Side, doesn’t do cliques.

“It shouldn’t always be about party, it should be about we the people,” Gilliard says.

He’s right, although these days that’s not a popular opinion. But if history is a guide, everyone will be saying the same thing in a few years.

Seems like it would be a lot easier to just listen to Gilliard the first time.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.