Let SLED investigate police shootings

Writing new laws in response to emotional news events is not always a good idea. But a proposal to require that all police shootings in South Carolina be investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division strikes us as a legitimate reaction to a recent string of such shootings, including a prominent one in North Charleston.

Under legislation approved April 30 by a state Senate subcommittee, SLED would have to investigate all cases where a police officer kills or seriously injures a suspect in the state. Senators noted that the law was, in part, a response to the April 4 shooting in North Charleston, where a police officer was charged with murder after shooting an unarmed man running from a traffic stop.

SLED already investigates nearly every officer-involved shooting in the state. The only noted exception was incidents involving deputies with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which handles all internal investigations. The department also is unique in the state in having its own citizens review council to go over the results of the investigation.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department unquestionably is better equipped to conduct a thorough investigation than most law enforcement agencies in the state. But the pertinent issue is not really one of equipment or expertise; it’s a matter of transparency and credibility in the eyes of the public.

SLED chief Mark Keel said his agency would be willing to do all investigations, as long as senators limit them to deaths and serious injuries at the hands of police officers. That’s a reasonable request. SLED should not have to review every instance in which force is used to subdue a subject when injuries are minor.

But with incidents such as the North Charleston shooting or any like it, using SLED to conduct an objective investigation helps ensure there is no conflict of interest. That can be virtually impossible when a law enforcement agency investigates one of its own.

The full Senate committee is expected to discuss whether the bill also should require the attorney general, instead of a local prosecutor, to review the investigation and decide whether an officer should face charges. Again, this would bring an objective view to the process, helping eliminate any bias – or appearance of bias – on the part of local prosecutors.

We commend the Senate for taking concrete steps to address the issue of excessive use of force by police. This is more than a just a knee-jerk response to a series of sensational stories, most involving police actions against black suspects.

This bill is an attempt to come to grips with the genuinely troubling issues raised by those incidents. It would help ensure that any use of force by police that results in death or serious injury is thoroughly investigated by a disinterested third party, giving the public greater confidence that justice will be done.

We hope that in the mad rush to clear legislation during the waning days of the session, this bill receives the attention it deserves.

In summary

Requiring SLED to investigate all police shootings or incidents in which suspects are seriously injured would help ensure objectivity and increase the credibility of the report in the eyes of the public.