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Editorial: SC legislative leaders promised police reforms. A year later, we're still waiting.

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Officer Sean Rollins (2021_2_18 copy) (copy)

Then-Columbia Police Officer Sean Rollins (second from right) fires bean-bag rounds at a crowd of protesters during a demonstration against police brutality on May 31. He was fired after The Post and Courier reported on a string of nine violent encounters with the public in a year. File/Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier 

S.C. legislators are rushing this week to get bills passed by either the House or the Senate before an arbitrary deadline makes it more difficult to pass any measures that haven’t cleared one chamber this year.

There’s quite a variety of high-profile legislation facing the April 12 deadline, including bills that would: increase penalties for people who commit so-called “hate crimes”; liberalize our alcohol laws; bar employers from requiring their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination; encourage people to divert their income tax payments to unaccountable private schools; allow people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes; and carry guns openly, without any training or registration for … well, for no good reason and a lot of bad reasons.

Yet despite the wide variety of bills that could potentially clear the deadline, and despite promises from House and Senate leaders that they would focus on fixing long-simmering problems with policing that were brought to the forefront through the nation’s revulsion at the brutal death of George Floyd last Memorial Day weekend, neither body has passed any significant criminal-justice reform legislation.

(The hate-crimes bill that the House passed Wednesday is a product of House Speaker Jay Lucas’ much-touted “Equitable Justice System and Law Enforcement Reform Committee,” but it’s the only product of that promising review that has gotten any traction. The bill addresses ordinary criminals who target others based on race and other immutable characteristics, not inappropriate police behavior.)

We respect the difficult job our police officers have to do, and we remain convinced that the overwhelming majority of them do heroic work. But we’re equally convinced that a minority of police officers are not fit to wear a badge, and their actions endanger the public and their colleagues.

At least as troubling, a culture of tolerance for bad cops still exists in many police departments, which allows police to avoid not only criminal charges but even any discipline when they recklessly endanger human life. This is in some ways even more dangerous, because it allows those bad cops to keep victimizing innocent people, and the presence of these bullies in uniform who can’t handle the adrenaline rush and consider disrespect a capital offense undermines public support for all the dedicated officers who have never overreacted to a situation or needlessly endangered anyone.

Although black people are disproportionately victimized, and the debate tends to focus on black victims, police abuse occurs across all races, and police who cross the line tend to get away with it regardless of the race of the victim or perpetrator. It’s something we all should agree needs to be addressed.

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Broadly, lawmakers need to pass laws that make it clear that just as we won’t tolerate lawlessness by ordinary citizens, we won’t tolerate it by police either.

Specifically, lawmakers need to refocus police training to teach officers how to deescalate potentially violent encounters and to recognize mental-health crises; outlaw shooting a fleeing suspect in most all cases; require officers to intervene when their colleagues act inappropriately; require outside investigations of police-involved shootings; stop letting officers get their stories straight before being questioned; fund the 2015 body camera mandate; and update the meager law concerning those cameras — for instance, imposing penalties on officers who turn them off except under limited circumstances, and requiring that the video be made public except in extraordinary cases. Lawmakers also need to abolish our constitutionally suspect civil-asset forfeiture law, or at least change it to remove the profit motive from policing.

It’s disappointing that no bills addressing those changes have made it out of committee in the House or the Senate to date. But that doesn’t have to mean we can’t see any progress this year. The April 12 deadline doesn’t automatically mean death for bills still languishing in committee: It simply means that the receiving body has to vote by two-thirds to consider a bill that arrives later — which is well within reach of most bills that become law.

Mr. Lucas was right last year when he identified reforms to police procedures and practices as one of the most important issues the Legislature faces this year. Senate Republican Leader Shane Massey and other GOP senators were right last year when they unveiled a package of reforms to police training and tactics and called on their colleagues to help save lives and restore trust between law enforcement and the public in the wake of Mr. Floyd's death.

But simply creating committees and introducing bills won't save a single life; those steps also won't do anything to restore public confidence in our police. We’re still waiting for action.

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