Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: When do you believe police, and when do you believe critics?

In this image from video, Walter Scott is fatally shot by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Thomas Slager.
In this image from video, Walter Scott is fatally shot by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Thomas Slager. AP

WHAT WAS YOUR reaction to news that federal agents had killed one of the Oregon militants and that conflicting eyewitness reports said the man was either charging the officer or on his knees with his hands up?

Did you believe this was a cold-blooded murder, or did you believe police shot in self defense?

Now consider another police shooting with conflicting claims. Do you believe that the Ferguson, Mo., police officer who killed Michael Brown was justified or not?

I suspect that, if we’re honest, a lot of us are uncomfortable with the different way we answered those two questions.

Let’s try another set of questions: Do you think Chicago police and political leaders were engaged in a cover-up when they withheld video for 14 months of an officer shooting an unarmed teenager 16 times? What do you think about Seneca police and SLED refusing for three months to release the video of an officer killing Zachary Hammond as he tried to speed away? Or what about North Augusta police and SLED, who after two years, still have not released the video of an officer who chased a drunken driving suspect nine miles and shot the man to death in his driveway?

Was your answer the same in all three cases? And if not, why do you think that is? Does it have anything to do with your opinion of Chicago in general and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in particular? Does it have anything to do with your opinion of South Carolina police?

My default is to believe that police are almost always justified when they kill someone and that they made honest mistakes when the victim turned out to be unarmed. But it is clear that this is not always the case. It is clear that there are some police officers — and all of my being believes it is a tiny minority — who are not fit to be police, who can’t handle the adrenaline rush and consider disrespect a capital offense. We need look no farther than North Charleston for what by all indications was a stomach-churning example of this.

Fortunately, as soon as they saw the video, police and political leaders in North Charleston denounced Walter Scott’s killing, they fired the police officer, and the solicitor charged him with murder.

Unfortunately, that response was not the norm. Time after time, we see fellow police officers and even police chiefs acting more like union members than public servants: circling the wagons, refusing to acknowledge that a cop could have done anything wrong.

We need that to change. Frankly, all the good police officers need that to change, so we can reverse the growing tendency of too many people to immediately assume that the police were in the wrong.

Dash-cams and body cameras are supposed to help with this, by providing evidence to show when police shootings were justified and when they were not. Of course video isn’t always as clear as we’d like: A lot of us who watched the Seneca video didn’t see an officer whose life was in danger, but the solicitor at the least concluded that there was enough uncertainty that she couldn’t convict the officer.

But video often will clear the air. That is, if we get to see the video. And that’s where South Carolina law needs work.

State law says video produced by cameras mounted on police cars is a public record that we all have a right to see, but as we’ve seen in Seneca and North Augusta, police don’t always obey that law. Sen. Larry Martin has introduced a bill that needs to become law that requires a judge to review police efforts to withhold video and allows the judge to order it released.

The new body-cam law that the Legislature passed last year in response to the Walter Scott killing is more problematic. It says body-cam videos aren’t even public records. It does require police to turn over the video to people who are arrested or who file a civil suit involving the incident recorded, but the only mechanism for obtaining that video is filing a lawsuit — or being charged with a crime. Otherwise, it’s entirely up to police to decide whether to make the video public.

So if a police officer kills someone, the only way anyone will see the video is if the police decide to release it, or if the victim’s family sues the police department claiming wrongful death — which will happen only if the family assumes the police are lying and hires a lawyer.

For the moment, our police chiefs and sheriffs need to take the position that, at a minimum, they will release the video whenever an officer kills someone. And very quickly, the Legislature needs to make release the default position, and not just when people die.

I understand that body-cams go into people’s homes with the police officers and can invade the privacy of innocent bystanders, capturing them in intimate or embarrassing situations. I don’t know precisely how to write a law to exempt such video from disclosure, but I am certain that it can be done — if our legislators are willing to try.

They must not only try; they must succeed.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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