A group of South Carolina authorities on Monday suggested that the state create new laws on police uses of force, criminal penalties for officers who run afoul of the guidelines and a unit in charge of prosecuting them.
The S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination unanimously approved four recommendations for legislation that would address lingering disagreements about how police shootings and other allegations of misconduct are handled in the Palmetto State.
Perhaps most notably, the commission suggested that the General Assembly come up with a new crime punishable by up 20 years in prison for officers who unlawfully use deadly force.
Made up of elected solicitors, court officials and law enforcement leaders, the commission issued the findings after a months-long study of issues central to a nationwide discussion about law enforcement. Much of that talk emerged during the two years since an eyewitness video captured a North Charleston police officer fatally shooting Walter Scott.
Commission Chairman Duffie Stone said he hoped that some, if not all, of the suggestions will be implemented by lawmakers in the upcoming session that starts in January. The law on excessive police force, for example, would come with many benefits, he said.
“It gives officers a better idea of their responsibility,” said Stone, solicitor for the 14th Circuit in the Bluffton area. “It gives prosecutors a clearer understanding of the law. It gives the public a sense of understanding as well.”
Funding, though, is expected to remain a hurdle for many of the recommendations, which are:
- Bring South Carolina in line with 41 other states that have laws laying out when police can use deadly force. This will help guide police decision-making and give prosecutors a specific charge to pursue when an officers’ actions might not fit a current criminal offense, such as murder. Violations could carry up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Such a statute could mirror a Utah law that includes a standard that the U.S. Supreme Court devised in the landmark Tennessee v. Garner civil case, which said officers couldn't use deadly force to prevent escape unless the fleeing suspect poses a serious threat to others.
- Create a Law Enforcement Integrity Unit at the S.C. Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute all allegations of police misconduct and officer-involved deaths. Now, the State Law Enforcement Division investigates most cases, and solicitors often decide whether to pursue charges. But the procedures vary statewide. Until an integrity unit is established, each elected solicitor should work with the attorney general and police agencies to come up with a transparent policy that works for their judicial circuits. The rules should make clear certain responsibilities, such as who should be in charge of releasing video footage to the public.
- Provide full funding for all law officers in South Carolina to be outfitted with body-worn cameras and for technology allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to handle the resulting evidence. Though a law already mandates the cameras, funding shortfalls have prevented the technology from becoming reality at many police agencies.
- Give immunity from civil liability to prosecutors who get involved in investigations into police misconduct before any charges are filed. Prosecutors are not normally held liable for routine courtroom actions, but the same immunity is not applicable to their work alongside law enforcement investigators before that point.
Michael Slager, the former officer who shot Scott, was charged with murder in the April 2015 killing, but a jury could not agree on whether he committed any crime. He later pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge and is awaiting sentencing.
Juries often hesitate to convict police of a serious crime, said Justin Bamberg, an Orangeburg attorney and state lawmaker who represented Scott's family. Though he hadn't seen the proposals, he said he would welcome discussion about a new law dealing with such cases.
"People generally struggle with saying that a cop would actually want to kill somebody," Bamberg said. "That's problematic for prosecutors, so a separate charge on the books specifically addressing the use of force would be helpful."