One of the many destabilizing forces in our nation is the distrust and fear many people feel toward police.
Although most police officers have never shot anyone — and most police shootings are tragically unavoidable — the fact is that some shootings are criminal. Compounding the error, police and prosecutors sometimes appear too eager to make excuses for those few bad cops who have no business being cops, who need to be prosecuted. This hesitation to adequately investigate, prosecute or even just fire bad cops endangers not only the public but also all other officers.
That’s why we are encouraged by 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s plan to improve the way investigations are conducted when police injure or kill people in the line of duty. Beyond the procedures themselves, it’s important to note that Ms. Wilson also has achieved crucial buy-in from the community and police.
Now if only the Legislature would do its part and pass laws that will make mandatory, permanent and statewide changes on how these incidents are handled, and to rebuild the trust in police that has been shattered in too many communities.
Ms. Wilson, the chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, announced May 2 that local police had agreed to turn over all investigations of officer-involved critical incidents to outside investigators and allow her office to play a key role in the investigations. Several community leaders stood with Ms. Wilson and law enforcement leaders when she announced the agreement.
The new procedures should ensure that investigations of police are treated like other investigations, for instance ending the practice of allowing police to review videotape evidence or talk with other officers or witnesses before being questioned by investigators. If investigations aren’t wrapped up within 60 days, the investigating agency — typically but not necessarily SLED — would have to ask the solicitor for more time. The solicitor would have 60 days after receiving the report to announce whether she’s filing charges — and, one hopes, to explain her decision.
But while this was probably the best agreement Ms. Wilson could extract, it’s not good enough for our community or for our state. The most obvious shortcoming is that it’s only good for as long as Ms. Wilson is solicitor. Then it would be up to her successor to continue it, amend it or discard it. And of course it applies only to this circuit. Although some of the state’s 15 other solicitors have developed similar policies, many have not.
Even if this policy were perfect, and even if all 16 solicitors had identical policies, they still would be voluntary, which simply is unacceptable.
It should not be up to a solicitor or a sheriff or police chief to decide whether to call for independent investigations of police shootings or handle them in-house, as Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott usually does. The Legislature needs to require outside investigations in all cases.
It should not be up to a solicitor or investigating agency to decide whether to release police body-cam video to the public, as it is under state law. The Legislature needs to require those videos to be released, as it finally did with video from vehicle-mounted cameras, except under limited circumstances when police can convince a judge that doing so would clearly impede an investigation.
It should not be legally risky for a solicitor to act like a solicitor, and be involved in the investigation that determines whether charges are brought against police officers — or against anyone, for that matter. The Legislature needs to make that part of a solicitor’s job, although as with other decisions, it should be at the solicitor’s discretion how involved to become, and at what point, with each individual case.
Ms. Wilson has laid the foundation to help rebuild trust in law enforcement. The Legislature can, and should, build on that foundation.