After an Upstate solicitor directed authorities to withhold names of officers involved in shootings — unless they’re criminally charged — law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the Lowcountry say they have no plans to adopt such restrictions.
The decision by 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins to protect officers' identities is among his guidelines for how law enforcement in Greenville and Pickens counties handle officer-involved shootings, The Greenville News reported this week.
Police deserve the same rights to privacy as regular citizens, he reasoned, saying officers have been threatened after their names were released.
In the greater Charleston area, where agencies typically release names of officers within a few days of a shooting, authorities questioned whether such a policy would hold up under the state's open records laws designed to give citizens access to public information.
At a time when officer-involved shootings and excessive force complaints are being scrutinized across the nation, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he expected Wilkins' policy to be looked at "under a microscope."
"I appreciate the position he’s taken, but I think the final analysis probably turns on the question of what the Freedom of Information Act says on this issue," said Cannon, who added that his office addresses what information to release on a case-by-case basis.
S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender, who has also represented The Post and Courier, said shootings involving on-duty officers are public matters and the individuals involved have no expectation of privacy.
"It's long been the law in South Carolina that when one becomes involved, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, in a matter of public interest, they lose the shield of privacy that might otherwise be available, and that’s particularly true of public officials," he said.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she hasn’t issued any directives for how law enforcement agencies in Charleston and Berkeley counties handle the disclosure of information in any type of investigation, including officer-involved shootings.
“I am also not aware of law enforcement in my jurisdiction, as a matter of general policy, withholding the names of 'regular citizens' or law enforcement officers who are victims, witnesses, persons of interest or suspects,” she said in a statement.
Mike Cochran, chief deputy of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, said, given the sensitivity surrounding officer-involved shootings, it's best to address cases individually rather than with a blanket rule to keep officers' names a secret.
John Blackmon, president of the Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #3, applauded the Upstate solicitor's policy and said he'd like to see it taken a step further, with a state law preventing the release of officers' personal information.
Officers can become targets, he said, pointing to the 2016 fire set at former North Charleston officer Michael Slager's home in Hanahan as he awaited trial in the shooting death of Walter Scott.
"I think these officers understand they are held to a higher standard," Blackmon said. "We still have certain rights that shouldn't be taken away because of the job we choose."
Prosecutors statewide don't have one standard policy for handling officer-involved shooting cases. Some solicitors send the cases to the S.C. Attorney General's Office or an outside solicitor for review, while others make the charging decision in-house after an independent agency investigates.
The lack of consistency is one reason the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination studied best practices related to police shootings, Commission Chairman Duffie Stone said.
In an effort to show transparency, the commission recommended solicitors publish written policies on steps they take in such cases.
Stone, the solicitor in the 14th Circuit that includes Beaufort County, said solicitors were encouraged to develop policies specific to their areas. The commission hasn't addressed the particular issue of releasing officers' names.
"It’s interesting because, from my perspective, usually the media already knows who the officers are," he said.