Police are continuously accused of using excessive force in situations that don’t require it. Time and time again, those officers usually get a slap on the wrist and additional “training” while costing the taxpayers an arm and a leg to settle lawsuits and fight trials. One group has finally decided that enough is enough and that officers need to really be held accountable for their actions.
On Monday, a group of South Carolina authorities recommended that the state address this issue by enacting new legislation tackling police excessive force. The group suggested that police face criminal penalties for breaking department policies and that a unit should be established to prosecute these officers.
The South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination unanimously agreed on four recommendations for law that would tackle the lingering problem of how police shootings and other allegations of police misconduct are handled. What sticks out the most is that the commission suggested the General Assembly draft a law making it a crime for an officer to use deadly force when it is not warranted and have it punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
This comes after a months-long study and review of issues that are central to the nationwide discussion of heavy-handed policing. The commission, made up of elected solicitors, court officials and law enforcement leaders, brought the issue to the forefront following the release of eyewitness video capturing a North Charleston police officer killing Walter Scott.
Commission Chairman Duffie Stone said the law on excessive force would come with many benefits. “It gives officers a better idea of their responsibility,” said Stone, solicitor for the 14th Circuit in the Bluffton area. “It gives prosecutors a clearer understanding of the law. It gives the public a sense of understanding as well.”
The four recommendations brought forth by the commission are:
- Bring South Carolina in line with 41 other states that have laws laying out when police can use deadly force. This will help guide police decision-making and give prosecutors a specific charge to pursue when an officers’ actions might not fit a current criminal offense, such as murder. Violations could carry up to 20 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Such a statute could mirror a Utah law that includes a standard that the U.S. Supreme Court devised in the landmark Tennessee v. Garner civil case, which said officers couldn’t use deadly force to prevent escape unless the fleeing suspect poses a serious threat to others.
- Create a Law Enforcement Integrity Unit at the S.C. Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute all allegations of police misconduct and officer-involved deaths. Now, the State Law Enforcement Division investigates most cases, and solicitors often decide whether to pursue charges. But the procedures vary statewide. Until an integrity unit is established, each elected solicitor should work with the attorney general and police agencies to come up with a transparent policy that works for their judicial circuits. The rules should make clear certain responsibilities, such as who should be in charge of releasing video footage to the public.
- Provide full funding for all law officers in South Carolina to be outfitted with body-worn cameras and for technology allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to handle the resulting evidence. Though a law already mandates the cameras, funding shortfalls have prevented the technology from becoming reality at many police agencies.
- Give immunity from civil liability to prosecutors who get involved in investigations into police misconduct before any charges are filed. Prosecutors are not normally held liable for routine courtroom actions, but the same immunity is not applicable to their work alongside law enforcement investigators before that point.
Justin Bamberg, an Orangeburg attorney and representative for the Scott family said that juries find it hard to convict police of serious crimes.
“People generally struggle with saying that a cop would actually want to kill somebody,” Bamberg said. “That’s problematic for prosecutors, so a separate charge on the books specifically addressing the use of force would be helpful.”
Do you think a law addressing excessive force will make a difference or will police just find another loophole?
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