A new policy unveiled Thursday will enact sweeping changes to how police shootings and other uses of force are investigated in Charleston and Berkeley counties — a move that prosecutors, law enforcement officials and community activists hope will bring greater transparency and accountability to the process.
The plan, developed by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, sets a clear, 60-day deadline for independent investigators to wrap up cases, and sets standards for public disclosure of information related to the investigation. The plan also provides a formal way for the solicitor to become involved and have input in the process prior to being asked to rule on whether the use of force was justified.
The initiative comes roughly two years after Wilson and other chief prosecutors found themselves at odds with the State Law Enforcement Division over who should decide and publicly explain whether charges are warranted in police shooting investigations.
SLED leads most of these investigations but has traditionally relied on solicitors to weigh whether evidence supported criminal charges against officers. Wilson and others argued that SLED was best suited to make that call since prosecutors often had little early involvement in the probes. The disagreement led to nearly three-dozen officer-involved shooting cases being left open at the time.
Despite the previous disagreement, SLED Chief Mark Keel stood at Wilson's side on Thursday along with Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, several local police chiefs and community activists. All said they wholly backed her plan.
"We’re creating a process that the community and officers can trust," Wilson said.
For years, officer-involved shooting cases and other such investigations suffered from a lack of consistency and clear standards. Residents, officers, investigators and others in the Charleston area — still reeling from the upheaval and national attention surrounding the fatal shooting of Walter Scott in April 2015 by then-North Charleston officer Michael Slager — will benefit from having guidelines like Wilson's plan in place, many said.
The 29-page document outlines everything from how authorities should initially respond to an incident to who has jurisdiction to investigate. The plan also sets guidelines for completing investigations in a timely manner and ensuring transparency and disclosure of findings to the public.
Not all incident investigations will fall under the plan. It applies when:
- A law enforcement officer fatally shoots someone.
- An officer shoots someone resulting in that person's injury.
- Any incident where a law enforcement officer suffers serious physical injury or death because of the actions of another person.
- Any incident involving officer use of force that results in, or was likely to have resulted in, great bodily injury or death.
- All in-custody deaths, except for those that happen while a prisoner is under doctor's medical treatment for a disease or other "natural condition."
Traffic incidents that involve officers and result in someone's injury or death will be governed by the policies and procedures of that officer's department, according to Wilson's plan.
An independent agency will be required to conduct the investigations. Typically, SLED fills this roll in the 9th Circuit, but there is no requirement that SLED always be the agency to investigate.
Whichever independent agency does investigate has 60 days to complete its probe or to explain why they need more time. Wilson then gets 60 days to review the findings and make a recommendation on whether to file charges.
Also included in the plan are guidelines for conducting interviews with those involved in the incident and witnesses, notifying next of kin if someone has died, processing the crime scene and releasing information about the investigation to the public.
"What this does that’s really commendable ... is put some discipline in the process so that everyone knows what to expect," said Andy Savage, the attorney who defended Slager. "Working within the standardization is to everyone’s benefit. There is a discipline in the investigation. There are expectations to meet or to be met."
Savage said he hopes Wilson's plan will not only be adopted by other solicitors' offices around South Carolina but also have an impact in other states, where clear rules surrounding police shootings and other use of force investigations are lacking.
The S.C. Attorney General's Office has encouraged every judicial circuit in the state to have a policy in place for officer-involved shootings and other similar incidents "so that everyone knows how the incidents will be handled," Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement.
"We appreciate the work Solicitor Wilson has put into her policy and look forward to continuing to assist her in the future in any way she needs," Kittle stated.
Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he supports Wilson's plan.
"What I'm impressed with is that we've really kind of hit the pause button and slowed things down," Reynolds said. "It was very collaborative. There's a lot of communities around our country, I'd say almost every community, that have demanded transparency on issues like this, so it's not unique to us."
The chief said he believes the plan will help foster public trust and faith in these investigations by ensuring that the process is thorough, fair, consistent and achieves the most just outcome.
Keel also praised Wilson's efforts and said he hopes the public will have a better understanding of why these investigations take time and that officers, just like anyone else facing investigation, have to right to not give a statement to investigators if they wish.
Information on how many solicitors' offices in South Carolina have written policies was not available on Thursday. But 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who also chairs the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination, said all solicitors have policies for officer-involved shootings and other law enforcement use of force investigations in place, whether written down or not.
Because South Carolina lacks legislation or a set of centralized rules governing how police shootings and other similar incidents are investigated, Stone's commission recommended that solicitors offices develop written plans and publicize them.
Several solicitors' offices around the state have done so, including Stone's office and 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins in Greenville and Pickens counties, Stone said.
He expects many will be looking to Wilson's plan for guidance on best practices.
"The transparency issue is crucial so that the community knows what’s going on," Stone said.
And having a plan in place allows prosecutors a way in which to keep the public informed while also staying within the bounds of their ethical responsibilities, he said.
Susan Dunn, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said she considers Wilson's plan to be a good first step and praised the solicitor's willingness to develop her plan with feedback from community leaders and law enforcement alike.
But Dunn has concerns about whether these policies will remain in place when Wilson eventually leaves office.
"The solicitor is an elected office," she said.
And these kinds of policies shouldn't be left vulnerable to change via election cycles, Dunn said.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, said the plan was not a complete solution to the issues surrounding community trust, particularly in minority communities, but acknowledged that the approach is a significant step forward.
The investigative process at times can last a very long time and in minority communities, in particular, there is a sense that authorities don't have any sense of urgency in investigating police shootings and other uses of force, Scott said.
"This helps," she said of the plan. "That communication helps a lot."