Bill would aid college police Measure sparked by C of C incident

Sen. Vincent Sheheen (pictured) said the legislation was inspired by a case last year at the downtown campus in which a woman on the school’s softball team accused four baseball players of assaulting her in a dormitory.

The College of Charleston said Thursday that it would “welcome and appreciate” help from the city police force in investigating sexual assaults on campus, if a change in state law allows it.

Its statement came in response to a bill introduced Wednesday in the S.C. Senate to clarify a law that politicians said the school has misinterpreted since it was passed in 2007.

If approved, the amendment to the Jessica Horton Act would say that campus police squads at South Carolina colleges can draw from the expertise of city departments. It would not require a school to hand over such cases to outside agencies.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said the legislation was inspired by a case last year at the downtown campus in which a woman on the school’s softball team accused four baseball players of assaulting her in a dormitory.

As the probe ended without arrests, the woman’s father questioned campus detectives’ experience in investigating sex crimes and whether they had a conflict of interest because the case involved athletes.

The Jessica Horton Act had the opposite intent, said Sheheen, its primary sponsor. The law was designed to bring in outside assistance and allow for a more professional review of serious crimes. It arose from the 2002 death of a University of South Carolina student in which family members questioned the campus police department’s ability to conduct a thorough inquiry.

Citing the law, the College of Charleston took control of all sex assaults starting in 2009, effectively shutting out the Charleston Police Department. State Law Enforcement Division agents played a small role in the investigation involving the softball player.

“We would welcome and appreciate having greater flexibility,” the school said in a statement to The Post and Courier. “If allowed to do so under the Jessica Horton Act, our investigators will notify and consult with other law enforcement agencies and conduct joint investigations.”

The school said it still would lead those investigations. To the father of the woman who left the school after the April incident, that means Sheheen’s new proposal doesn’t go far enough. A campus force controlling a probe is like “having the JV squad playing varsity,” he said.

The Post and Courier does not identify victims of alleged sex crimes or their family members.

“They’re out of their league,” the father said. “It should be mandated that the cases be turned over to the municipal police or SLED.”

Sheheen, who drafted the amendment that is co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, and Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said the father’s contention merits further review, but the perception of bias among campus police officers because of a school’s public relations interests does not seem to be widespread.

“It’s impossible to judge when a conflict of interest will arise,” Sheheen said. “They have to be looked into on a case-by-case basis.”

The newspaper first published coverage of the assault report in November. One of the four suspects was expelled for sexual conduct violations, but the three others remained. School officials said the criminal case was closed because of insufficient evidence.

The father said the campus police squad was not as versed in sex crimes as the city investigators who handled such cases before the Jessica Horton Act, which states that the school police “shall lead” the investigations. They are required to notify SLED, whose agents participate in a “joint investigation.”

Sheheen’s bill states that the act should not be “construed to prohibit or limit campus police from participating in a joint investigation with a local law enforcement agency concerning allegations of criminal activity.”

Sheheen said any evidence of bias would demand review by the appropriate agency, such as the state Attorney General’s Office or local solicitors. Representatives of both offices have declined to discuss their take on the law.

“Campus police are real police officers,” the senator said. “They should abide by the conflict of interest provisions that all police officers everywhere in the country abide by.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414