Cindi Ross Scoppe

The most important thing prosecutors can do to restore trust in police

It was a private citizen’s video that showed Walter Scott being shot by North Charleston Police officer Michael Thomas Slager in 2015.
It was a private citizen’s video that showed Walter Scott being shot by North Charleston Police officer Michael Thomas Slager in 2015. AP

EVERYBODY WOULD be safer — including police — if police did a better job of policing those few officers who aren’t temperamentally fit to be police officers. And if prosecutors did a better job of policing them. So it’s extremely encouraging that the state’s prosecutors are looking into how they can do their part better.

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Doing their part better is crucial because prosecutors probably play a bigger role in deciding when police get charged than they do in deciding when other people are charged with crimes. It’s also crucial because prosecutors have a significant risk of bias when they’re deciding whether to prosecute a member of the police force they have to work with day in and day out — and all the more so when that police force is rallying around the officer who killed someone, even if it looks like the killing was not justified.

One of the most misunderstood aspects of the anger over police killing unarmed black people that the larger community has come to see in recent years is that the rage doesn’t grow out of the killings themselves. It grows out of the fact that the shooters get away with it, even on those occasions when they shouldn’t.

To answer the most frequently asked question and allegation: The reason we don’t see protests when people we consider criminals kill people is that everybody knows that if we catch the killers, they’re going to be arrested, charged and most likely convicted. We see protests after police kill unarmed people because we know, based on too many decades of history, that the killers probably are not going to be arrested, which means they won’t be subject to a trial. They probably won’t even be fired, or disciplined, even when they acted inappropriately.

A lot of the same people who ask this question also blame recent police killings on the Black Lives Matter movement. And there’s no question that evil or emotionally unstable people can be driven over the edge when they feed on a constant diet of protests by people whose grievances they share.

People who kill abortion doctors, for instance, are probably driven over the edge by immersing themselves in the heated rhetoric of abortion opponents. Dylann Roof might well have been driven over the edge by the white supremacist rhetoric he chose to expose himself to. And most obviously in this country and around the world, some disaffected Muslims are radicalized by engorging themselves on the murderous distortions of ISIS and other terrorist groups.

At least in the case of Black Lives Matter, the protesters often have a legitimate point, even if they’re sometimes too quick to conclude that the police were in the wrong. The very clear facts are that police do sometimes kill people when there is no justification, and in too many cases, there are no consequences for their actions.

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PREVIOUS COLUMNS

The benefit of the doubt, cubed

What if they were your neighbors?

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But back to South Carolina’s prosecutors: One of the best practices I suspect they’ll find is handing off prosecutorial decisions to prosecutors on the other side of the state. It’s not a cure-all, because police tend to be extremely insular — police in Greenville might feel protective of a bad cop in Charleston. But it’s better than no hand off.

One thing prosecutors should conclude without looking elsewhere is that they need to do a better job of releasing public information to the public — specifically video evidence.

Certainly there are some times when it is justifiable to withhold video and other information from the public. State law spells out when that is: “if the disclosure would harm the agency by: (A) disclosing identity of informants not otherwise known; (B) the premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action; (C) disclosing investigatory techniques not otherwise known outside the government; (D) by endangering the life, health, or property of any person; or (E) disclosing any contents of intercepted wire, oral, or electronic communications not otherwise disclosed during a trial.”

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READ THE LAW, at 30-4-40(3)

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

Video of police encounters only helps if you get to see the video

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That’s a dense and grammatically challenging (and challenged) law, but it’s hard to imagine that any of those exemptions would apply when the public information in question is a video of a police officer shooting someone: Police already know who pulled the trigger; the only question is whether that constituted a crime.

And in the two cases in South Carolina where police and prosecutors refused for months to comply with the law, it was clear — once they did release the videos — that none of the exemptions applied.

A bill to require a judge to sign off on the refusal to turn over police videos got caught in a House-Senate power struggle this year and didn’t become law. But if prosecutors want to restore public confidence in the way they and police do their jobs, they don’t need a law. They just need to agree to comply with the law we already have, and promptly release all videos of police encounters gone bad unless they actually qualify for one of those exemptions.

I doubt they’ll find a better practice than that no matter how thoroughly they search.

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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