IT’S ONE OF the most divisive topics in our society today: bad cops.
To hear some people on the far left, that’s a redundancy: All cops are bad.
Their counterparts on the far right are equally certain that there’s no such thing as a bad cop; anybody who has a bad encounter with a police officer deserves it, whatever it is.
Clearly, both extremes are wrong, and dangerously so.
There are some people whose own actions leave cops no choice but to wrestle them to the ground, sometimes painfully so, and even shoot, sometimes killing them; cops in that situation need to be offered counseling so they can get back to work.
There also are some bad cops — who bully people and take advantage of their positions, who wantonly use excessive force, even lethal force. They need to be fired, and in some cases prosecuted.
There also are all sorts of in-between cases, but today I want to talk about the bad cops, and a significant step our Legislature took this year to weed them out.
This is crucially important not just because bad cops potentially endanger every single one of us, but also because the best thing we can do to protect good cops is to get rid of the bad ones, so they don’t suffer guilt by association.
South Carolina’s system for dealing with bad cops was about as backwards as you can get. It was way too lenient on bad cops. It was also unfair to good cops who were wrongly accused of misconduct.
Under the old law, police officers fired for misconduct were automatically stripped of their state law enforcement certification. They had no way of appealing unless another police agency hired them. This wasn’t fair to the officers who didn’t actually do anything wrong, as sometimes turns out to be the case.
But if another police agency did hire them, the fired-for-misconduct cops were afforded the full power of regular police officers for up to a year, while they appealed their decertification. This meant that officers who didn’t need to be officers got to keep on being officers.
The only thing this system had going for it was efficiency: It relieved state officials of having to spend time and money on the appeals process for someone who didn’t want to be a cop anymore anyhow.
Compounding the problem was the fact that police agencies sometimes fired officers for misconduct without saying so, which meant those officers were never decertified, and they could be hired by agencies that had no idea about their problems. Which is also incredibly dangerous, and could give honest police agencies a black eye.
All of that changed on May 31, when Gov. Henry McMaster signed into law H.4479, which flips the old system on its head. Under the new law, police who lose their certification can appeal that decision to the state Law Enforcement Training Council, without having to first convince another agency to hire them — which one hopes would be difficult to do anyway. And they can’t act as police officers again unless or until the council agrees to reinstate their certification.
Critically, it also takes away police agencies’ discretion to decide for themselves whether to let others know they fired a cop for misconduct. The new law requires the agencies to report misconduct; sheriffs and police chiefs can lose their own certification if they don’t report.
The old law didn’t even define misconduct. The new does, and the definition contains 11 offenses, from lying to police or in court to “the repeated use of excessive force in dealing with the public or prisoners,” “dangerous or unsafe practices involving firearms, weapons, or vehicles which indicate either a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” and “the physical or psychological abuse of members of the public or prisoners.”
The summary provided by the House reports that “The changes are offered as a means of reducing the likelihood that a law enforcement officer leaving one police department because of alleged misconduct could be hired by another department without the allegations being addressed.”
But Rep. Eddie Tallon, a retired SLED agent and primary sponsor of the legislation, says the protections it affords to wrongly fired police are just as important.
“I think it helps everybody,” he told me recently. “I think it helps law enforcement agencies and the public by not putting somebody to work for maybe a year if they don’t need to be out there on the streets. It also helps the officer that feels like he or she has been wronged by giving them an opportunity to get it settled quickly. It gives them basically due process to get their name cleared up.”
I wish the law made more information public than it does, but it’s still a huge step toward restoring trust between police and the public, which makes both groups safer.
Legislators became aware of the problems with the old process during the House Oversight Committee’s recent reviews of the Criminal Justice Academy and the Department of Public Safety. That committee was created in response to a 2014 law that gave governors more authority over executive agencies and spelled out legislators’ responsibility to provide regular oversight of those agencies, so they would detect problems before they became disasters. Mr. Tallon, who serves on that committee, is a believer.
“Thank goodness we’ve got the oversight process,” he said, “because things like this come out.”
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.