Editorial: Richland County Sheriff’s Department shouldn’t investigate it own

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott gmelendez@thestate.com

WHILE RICHLAND County Sheriff Leon Lott is a trusted, professional lawman in whom many citizens have placed their confidence, it is unacceptable for his department to investigate its own officers who have been involved in shootings.

Law enforcement agencies simply shouldn’t investigate their own. The reason is self-evident: It’s difficult for officers to investigate comrades because it’s natural to not only want to protect your own but also to empathize with them, knowing it could have been you. In order to avoid even the appearance of a cover-up, law enforcement agencies must request an outside probe.

Sheriff Lott, who began investigating in-house in 2014, justifies investigating his own deputies by pointing out that his department has the investigative expertise, a competent crime lab and the public trust. He and his supporters also point to a track record of arresting and firing offending officers. The sheriff sends every officer-involved shooting case to a citizen review panel selected by Mr. Lott.

Frankly, the fact that Mr. Lott is among the more trusted and transparent law officers is exactly why it’s surprising that he would bypass an independent investigation that makes it clear that a department has nothing to hide. The Richland sheriff’s office is the only one in South Carolina that doesn’t routinely turn over investigations of its officer-involved shootings to SLED or another outside agency.

State law wisely prohibits police from investigating traffic accidents that involve their own vehicles. But that wisdom doesn’t carry over to officer-involved shootings, leaving police to determine whether or not to submit an independent probe. That’s unbelievable.

State lawmakers should mandate an independent investigation of officer-involved shootings. Even if that doesn’t happen, Sheriff Lott should immediately give way to independent reviews, preferably by the State Law Enforcement Division. If he wants to do his own investigation as well, fine. What’s essential is that there be an independent one.

Although SLED Chief Mark Keel believes such cases should be investigated by an outside agency, that’s not the counsel Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson gave Sheriff Lott, the chief prosecutor’s former boss. In a letter to the sheriff, Mr. Johnson suggested that while it might not be for everyone, Mr. Lott’s department has the competence and integrity to do so.

But it’s dangerous to shape policy based on individual personalities. This isn’t about Mr. Lott. This is about assuring the public that any police shooting, regardless of the jurisdiction, will get a fair and independent review. Few things are as emotionally charged and closely watched these days as shootings involving officers. Questions about use of force and fairness of investigations reinforce the need to have an independent review.

No matter what Mr. Lott’s department does to be objective and conduct a credible investigation, it will always be met with skepticism, legitimate or not. Things must not only be right, they must look right. Whether the Legislature acts or not, Sheriff Lott should welcome outside investigations.