The S.C. Attorney General's Office has started a review of at least nine police shootings since 2015 as some prosecutors and investigators continue to debate who should have that responsibility.
Some elected solicitors think the State Law Enforcement Division should decide whether to charge officers in uses of force, as its agents do in other cases. SLED, though, usually relies heavily on solicitors' written opinion about that decision.
The latest development, which came weeks after a Post and Courier report on the dilemma, could help resolve probes that have been held open indefinitely. That delay — nearly two and a half years in one case — has thrust some officers' careers into limbo, prevented them from resuming patrol duties and denied closure to people involved in confrontations with police.
The move calls on the attorney general to look at the nine cases in the 9th Judicial Circuit, which is Charleston and Berkeley counties, that are an average of 15 months old. But it does little to resolve the underlying disagreement among some officials.
A majority of cases in at least five other circuits — the 1st in the Orangeburg area, 4th in the Pee Dee and the Upstate's 7th, 8th and 10th — also are being sent to the attorney general's office or an outside solicitor, primarily to avoid conflicts of interest with the police agencies involved, prosecutors said.
But a more standard process is needed, some said.
Sparked in part by intense focus on police shootings in recent years, a task force has been developing a new system for possible use in South Carolina, but its recommendations have yet to emerge, and funding could be a hurdle for any proposal.
In a letter asking the attorney general to take over the nine cases, SLED Chief Mark Keel said it wasn't appropriate for agents to do a legal analysis and reach a "unilateral charging or closing decision." Keel, though, has acknowledged public frustration over the length of shooting inquiries.
"SLED has a longstanding practice of seeking independent prosecutorial review of use of force investigations," he wrote. "I believe that maintaining public confidence and the credibility of law enforcement in this state demands not only an independent law enforcement investigation, but also an independent prosecutorial review."
'Not ... permanent'
SLED is typically asked to review police shootings statewide, but solicitors in the circuit where the incidents occur traditionally tell agents whether charges against the officers would succeed in court. The prosecutors pen their opinions in letters to SLED, usually prompting the investigations to be shuttered.
But that process already is changing in some places and is bound to change elsewhere.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, the Charleston area's top prosecutor, took particular exception, especially at times when SLED didn't follow her advice on collecting evidence before seeking her final analysis, she said. Early last year, she stopped issuing her opinions, but told SLED that she was willing to restart if changes were made.
Since then, agents have taken a more analytical approach in their investigative reports by adding a summary of important facts, rather than simply amassing evidence in a file. But they still seek formal letters from solicitors.
Wilson commended the adjustment but said more is needed. She insists on new protocols that make the process clear to the public and to the officers.
"I do not see this as a permanent situation," Wilson said of the attorney general's role. "There is more (SLED) can do and more that solicitors and the (attorney general) can do to ensure that law enforcement and the public are better served when these terrible situations arise."
Eighth Circuit Solicitor David Stumbo of Greenwood said he decides on a "case-by-case basis" whether probes should go elsewhere for review. Solicitor Will Rogers of the 4th Circuit, which includes Darlington County, sends his to the attorney general.
Since he took office in January, 10th Circuit Solicitor David Wagner of the Anderson area has prosecutors from other regions work on the cases "to avoid any appearance of partiality."
"If the attorney general dedicated a branch of their office to statewide review of officer-involved shootings, I would support that initiative," Wagner said. "Independent review by another circuit or agency is the best way to address the need for transparency."
In hopes of forming a new plan for the whole state, a study group at the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination has been examining procedures used elsewhere in the country.
One idea, commission Chairman Duffie Stone said, is the creation of a public integrity unit, a familiar proposal that emerged nearly five years ago amid discussion about legislative ethics. It could review actions of other public officials such as police officers.
Legislation to create a similar unit has failed before. Funding it remains a top concern.
Stone, solicitor in the 15th Circuit in Bluffton, said the panel aims to meet before the upcoming legislative session — possibly next month — and vote on its recommendations. Regardless of whether it supports the creation of the unit, the group will come up with suggested policies and procedures, he said.
"We have a temporary solution now for some circuits, but I don’t think it’s an end-all answer,” he said. "At the end of the day, we need accountability throughout the entire process."
'Still on a desk'
The stopgap measure has allayed only some of the concerns from officers, their attorneys and others wrapped up in the probes.
The oldest case in the Charleston area is the shooting of Bryant Heyward by a Charleston County deputy who in May 2015 mistakenly thought the Hollywood resident was a burglar and fired a bullet into his neck, paralyzing him.
Charleston attorney Andy Savage represents two officers in the shootings under review. One of them has been restricted to desk duty, denied overtime pay and barred from working off-duty jobs during the investigation, Savage said.
The attorney agreed, though, that there's a need for independent review.
"You have to have someone step back and make a legal analysis because these are not routine armed robberies," he said. "They are more sophisticated than that."
After The Post and Courier reported the problem in early August, Savage sought Attorney General Alan Wilson's involvement. Keel formally requested Wilson's help in mid-September.
Wilson's office agreed to take the cases while a permanent policy is being developed, spokesman Robert Kittle said. In the past, though, the attorney general has said that it shouldn't be his role to review the shootings.
While SLED has a "great working relationship" with all solicitors, Keel said the agency would continue to seek the attorney general's help, if needed.
But more cases have popped up, highlighting the need for a lasting solution to prevent lengthy investigations. In August, a Charleston SWAT team sharpshooter wounded a former worker who had killed a chef at Virginia's on King restaurant.
"He did what he was told to do. He went by the book," Savage said of the officer. "But he's still on a desk."