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Editorial: Local police shouldn't wait for Congress, Legislature to end abuses

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“No Hate, No Fear Solidarity Rally” (copy)

South Carolina State Rep. Wendell Gilliard (left) speaks with Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds during the “No Hate, No Fear Solidarity Rally” held Sunday, Jan. 12 at Synagogue Emanu-El. Brad Nettles/Staff

The concept of police officers de-escalating potentially dangerous encounters is relatively new and opposite of what was standard operating procedure for decades: Counter the least resistance with overwhelming force.

The essential idea is to prevent traffic stops, drunk-and-disorderly arrests and other misdemeanors from turning deadly, and law enforcement has come a long way. It’s been professionalized and regulated in almost every way imaginable. The by-the-book set of rules has grown immensely.

Yet we still see what seems like a never-ending stream of videos showing what appear to be clear abuses, so Congress is again trying to find a starting point: What to do about the state of policing in the United States, specifically how to prevent unjustifiable killings, notably among black Americans.

It’s an appropriate role for Congress, and one we have some hope will result in reforms, despite the partisan clashes over what to do about no-knock warrants, chokeholds, qualified immunity, letting bad cops move from agency to agency and other details. It’s also one that our Legislature needs to engage.

In the meantime, though, there’s plenty police chiefs and sheriffs can do.

There’s nothing to stop local law enforcement agencies from enacting fail-safe bodycam policies. South Carolina was ahead of most other states when it mandated all officers wear bodycams five years ago, but policies about how they must be used remain variable and weak.

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There’s nothing to stop police from working closer with public mental health workers, addiction specialists or social workers, or doing a better job of policing themselves for bad officers and bad actions.

Charleston police Chief Luther Reynolds has suggested revising use-of-force tactics that have been mostly unchanged in decades. Chokeholds that cut off air could be restricted, along with “sleeper” holds that cut off blood to the brain. Certainly, we have to give officers latitude when they are truly fighting for their lives. But we also have to stop making it so easy to abuse that latitude.

The president signed an executive order Wednesday that includes most of these ideas, and Sen. Tim Scott followed it up with next day with a bill aimed at establishing federal law. We hope some good comes of it.

Meanwhile, patrol officers are going to be listening mainly to their watch commanders, watch commanders to their lieutenants and lieutenants to their captains and chiefs.

Locally, Charlestonians should look to their chiefs and sheriff for leadership, and we encourage them to speak out about what they’re doing to improve their departments. That’s where the change that matters most will happen first.

We believe Chief Reynolds and North Charleston police Chief Reggie Burgess are ready and willing to act on meaningful changes where the rubber meets the road, with or without changes in federal law. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon needs to get on board.

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