When a law enforcement officer fires his weapon, it should become the responsibility of a new, specialized unit in the S.C. Attorney General’s office to investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute cases, an organization of solicitors recommended Monday.
The recommendation to the Legislature follows a 15-month study by the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination that examined officer-involved shootings in the Palmetto State and across the nation in a search for best practices.
“What this whole body is really addressing is the credibility of the criminal justice system,” said 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who cited a growing public skepticism of the way such shootings are handled. Stone is chairman of the commission.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said that clearly defined procedures would help. “We need to have this spelled out for the public to understand,” she said.
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The commission voted unanimously to suggest a new unit in the attorney general’s office that would be comprised of about two prosecutors and two to three investigators, likely from the State Law Enforcement Division. SLED has been investigating those kinds of cases by practice because all police agencies except the Richland County Sheriff’s Department ask for SLED’s help, said SLED Chief Mark Keel, who is a member of the commission.
In recent years, SLED has investigated between 40 and 50 such shootings per year. In the five years between 2010 and 2014, police in South Carolina fired their weapons at 209 suspects, an analysis by The State newspaper found.
The group’s recommendation would make it state law that all officer-involved shootings be sent to the new unit. Deputy Attorney General Jeff Young told the group that his office would accept the responsibility as long as the Legislature provides the money to operate the unit.
The proposal caught Keel off guard. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room where solicitors want to give up authority to the attorney general. I’m kind of surprised by that.”
The consensus of the commission is that the cost of a separate unit makes its creation unlikely. No cost estimates were provided Monday. As a backup, the organization proposed that guidelines be adopted by state prosecutors to specify in writing how cases should be handled.
“No two solicitors’ offices were handling (officer-involved shooting) cases exactly the same way,” said 2nd Circuit Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr., who was part of the review done by a commission task force.
Among the suggestions is that SLED interview officers immediately after a shooting. Now, SLED gives officers time to gather themselves and consult a lawyer before answering questions.
Part of the organization’s recommendations is that the state’s 16 solicitors draft written policies not only on how to investigate and prosecute shootings but how to handle any criminal misconduct allegation against a law enforcement officer. Any elected solicitor may decide whether to adopt those recommendations.
Keel said widening the guidelines to criminal misconduct would result in “a lot of push back” from local law enforcement agencies. “They want the public to know they’re holding their officers accountable,” he said.