Cindi Ross Scoppe

Too bad we don’t actually have the law Haley says we have

SC Gov Nikki Haley told inmates scheduled to be released that it’s her job to help them find a legal job. She also told them South Carolina has a law that does things it doesn’t actually do.
SC Gov Nikki Haley told inmates scheduled to be released that it’s her job to help them find a legal job. She also told them South Carolina has a law that does things it doesn’t actually do. AP

FOR ALL THE good she has done on several issues, Gov. Haley retains two deeply troubling flaws: her disregard for the rule of law and her disinterest in the truth.

I keep thinking she has grown past them, and then, wham, like a dormant virus that suddenly awakens, they’re infecting our political discourse again.

Last month, she attacked Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster for helping to “kill income disclosure” after he did what his job as the Senate’s presiding officer required him to do and ruled an amendment to an ethics bill out of order. (The next week, senators revived the requirement that legislators disclosure their income, in compliance with their rules and in defiance of her proclamation.)

Before the month was out, she was mischaracterizing significant aspects of a law that she made a big deal about signing less than a year ago.

During a visit to a Columbia prison, Gov. Haley assured an inmate that police officers aren’t “out to get you.” Because of the state’s new body camera law, she said, “every one of those officers has to wear a body camera, and the reason is, that way it’s fair to them and it’s fair to you. So if something happens, we can see it.”

That sounds like a great law. But it’s not the law the governor signed, as The Associated Press’ Seanna Adcox pointed out — and bless her for recognizing that one of the most important things a reporter can do is to tell us what the facts actually are rather than simply regurgitating what public figures say the facts are.

The law does not actually require “every one of those officers” to wear a body camera; each department gets to decide which officers wear body cameras, and it won’t necessarily be every uniformed officer who wears a gun.

The requirement does not actually kick in until the state pays for the program — projected to cost up to $21 million, or about $18 million more than it has provided so far. (Ms. Adcox noted that the Legislature passed a law 18 years ago requiring all drunken-driving arrests to be videotaped, but the state still hasn’t provided cameras for all police cars.)

Most significantly, the law the governor signed will not actually let us see the video. The law the governor signed 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 we get to see the video when an officer shoots someone.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the governor’s misrepresentation was the response Ms. Adcox got from Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams: “The governor was proud to sign the first of its kind body camera bill in the country because, as she shared with inmates, it protects the people of our state and those in law enforcement.”

Well, that’s nice. I’m proud our governor signed that law too. I’m proud our Legislature passed it. It is a better law than we had before, and it is better than most states have now.

But it is a deeply flawed law, and it will remain deeply flawed as long as we pretend it does more than it does.

And Ms. Adams’ answer is not an answer. It is changing the subject.

Ms. Adams’ answer is avoiding the question, which is not about the details of state law as much as it is about the problem our governor has displayed too may times to count: Either she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and doesn’t care that she doesn’t know, or else she does know and is deliberately misstating facts.

Anybody can get confused about the details, although whether a law requires police video to be made public or not is hardly a minor detail. What differentiates a careless error from a disturbing pattern is how often it happens and how significant the misrepresentation. What differentiates simple carelessness from disregard for the truth — or worse — is what we do when we find out we were wrong.

When someone says, “The law the governor described is not the law she signed,” the correct response is not, “She’s so proud of that law.” The correct response is: “Oh, my goodness; you’re right. She is so sorry about that.”

By refusing to let her spokeswoman say that, the governor continues to make herself un-credible. And in this case, she is doing something worse: She is reducing the chance that we’ll ever get the law she told that inmate we have. The law that would be something to be really proud of.

The way to get that law is not to say it exists when it doesn’t. It’s to acknowledge that it does not exist, and to work to convince the Legislature to pass it.

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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