Editorial: Trust isn’t enough to justify self-policing

Senators are right to say Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott shouldn’t investigate himself. But he’s not the only one in that position.
Senators are right to say Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott shouldn’t investigate himself. But he’s not the only one in that position. gmelendez@thestate.com

IT HAS BEEN astounding to watch as Richland Sheriff Leon Lott has resisted, and resisted, and continued to resist the obvious, commonsense notion that he shouldn’t be in charge of investigating his deputies when they injure or kill citizens.

The sheriff offers up all sorts of justifications as he clings to his status as head of the only law-enforcement agency in the state that doesn’t invite SLED in to investigate when its officers use deadly or near-deadly force in the line of duty: He has a citizens-reivew committee. He has a top-notch lab. And the one we suspect is his primary motivation: That’s how big law enforcement agencies do it. (We might note that big law enforcement agencies don’t have the best record of maintaining trust with the communities they police.)

At bottom, though, it comes down to this: You can trust me.

And most people do trust Sheriff Lott, who has always struck that difficult balance between being a tough lawman and someone who maintains a high degree of community confidence and support. But it is foolhardy to make laws — or to refuse to make laws — based on personalities. Laws need to be written to work no matter who is holding the office in question.

Specifically, as our state and nation have witnessed a troubling tide of questionable killings and public protests and even riots, more and more people also have come to understand that police agencies shouldn’t investigate themselves. More and more people have come to understand that even if you have the best intentions in the world, it is nearly impossible to be objective. And even if you somehow manage to be objective, you invite public skepticism and distrust.

Our state senators seem to understand this: That’s why a unanimous, bipartisan, biracial Senate subcommittee voted last month to require SLED to investigate all police-shooting incidents, rather than waiting for the departments to invite it to do so. It was a smart decision, one we hope the full Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate will embrace.

We hope those senators also will turn the mirror on themselves.

Sheriff Lott’s blindness about the obvious conflicts involved in investigating his own department is very much like the blindness many state senators have about the obvious conflicts involved in the Senate Ethics Committee investigating state senators. The difference is that no one could be so delusional as to believe that the Senate enjoys even a tiny fraction of the public trust that the sheriff enjoys.

We are just three weeks away from the end of the 2015 legislative session, and ethics reform has been left for dead largely because nearly half of the members of the Senate refuse to allow a semi-independent commission — a third of its members would be appointed by senators — to investigate legislators’ compliance with the State Ethics Act.

That semi-independent commission wouldn’t judge legislators, or punish them. That still would be up to the Senate and House Ethics committees. It would simply investigate complaints against legislators — and make its findings public.

Sort of like what SLED already does when a police officer in South Carolina kills someone in the line of duty. Unless that police officer works for Leon Lott.

Sens. Gerald Malloy, Greg Hembree, Katrina Shealy, Ross Turner and Marlon Kimpson, like a growing number of people the state and country over, understand the problem with Sheriff Lott, and they voted to fix it. Now they need to help convince any remaining doubters in the Senate to do the same — when it comes to Sheriff Lott, and when it comes to the Senate and House.