South Carolina police are one step closer to having minimum standards.
The state House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday that mandates police agencies have basic policies and rules. However, the bill won’t pass the Senate this year because it came out of the House too late in the 2021 legislative session. The proposed law also faces opposition from at least one prominent civil rights group.
The bill, H. 3050, will require police agencies to:
▪ eliminate chokeholds except in life or death situations
▪ create standards for “no knock” warrants
▪ require body cameras
▪ add a ”duty to intervene” when another an officer is breaking the law or policy
▪ create “an early warning system that identifies, assesses, reviews, and tracks at-risk behavior” of officers
▪ utilize a publicly available, statewide standard system for people to file complaints against an agency or officer
▪ establish when officers can use force and how much force they can use
▪ require field training after basic police training
▪ establish when officers can pursue a vehicle and when they can shoot at a moving vehicle
▪ create hiring and firing practices
Under current law, police agencies in South Carolina are not required by state law to have any standards of practice, meaning it’s up to each of the more than 300 agencies in the state to create as few or as many rules as those agencies like. While a South Carolina county sheriff’s office may have a policy manual of hundreds of pages that guides the office and its deputies, a local police department could not have a manual at all, leaving critical police practices without guidance.
The bill also requires untrained, uncertified officers to work with a trained, certified officer at all times.
Rep. Chris Wooten, R-Lexington, who co-sponsored the bill, said that while most South Carolina police agencies have the proposed minimum standards, some agencies do not and will not adhere to the standards unless a statute is created.
“Some people are not doing what they’re suppose to and that makes the good ones look bad and that’s what we’re trying to fix,” Wooten told lawmakers.
Wooten worked with Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, to amend the bill to include the “early warning system” for tracking so called “bad apple” officers. That standard is meant to stop poor-performing officers from jumping from agency to agency.
Cobb-Hunter also added into the bill the standardize system for complaints against agencies and officers.
Another addition to the bill is the requirement for new officers to sign an “ethical policing” agreement. By signing, officers acknowledge that they will uphold the minimum standards proposed in the bill. The ethical policing agreement will specifically point out that officers have a duty to intervene when another officer is breaking the law or agency policy.
“Police need to know what expectations are,” Cobb-Hunter said on the House floor. “You can have all the training in the world and all the penalties in the world but if you start out with a police officer who is not committed to acting in an ethical and responsible manner, you got a problem.”
While the bill passed the House on a bipartisan 100-13 vote, some representatives believe the bill did not go far enough.
The bill does not create citizen review boards for police agencies or address officers being immune from criminal charges in certain situations, which is also known as qualified immunity. Cobb-Hunter pointed out those concerns but said the bill was a step forward for better policing.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, wanted the bill to create a specific crime for officers who use excessive force. His amendment was rejected.
“At some point this body will be posed the question ‘what did you do different?’” Rutherford said. Without a criminal statute against excessive force, the bill does nothing but allow law enforcement to fine itself.
Rep. John McCravy, a Greenwood Republican, opposed the bill for not defining the meaning of “psychological abuse” when it comes to an officer’s duty to intervene. The term was too ambiguous and put officers at risk of being penalized without cause. He said fines in the bill were too steep for agencies. He criticized the elimination of chokeholds, saying that officers may have to use them if they’re in danger. The bill doesn’t increase police pay or pay for body cameras
“I don’t want it said that I’m not for police standards,” McCravy said, adding he wants police to be held accountable for wrongful actions. “But we got to clean up this [bill] and make it right.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina opposed the bill, saying it “does not address the size, scope, and role of police.”
“Contrary to what we see on television, in reality law enforcement spend the vast majority of their time policing low level offenses like marijuana possession and having an open container of alcohol,” Frank Knaack, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said in a statement. “To make our communities safer and reduce the likelihood of harmful police interactions, legislators must stop asking police to be society’s ‘solution’ for substance use, misbehaving children at school, unhoused people, and people experiencing mental illness, to name just a few.”
The bill falls short of addressing racial bias, Knaack said in the statement. And South Carolina police agencies have in the past ignored legislation and their own policies.
The bill was not on the Senate’s schedule to debate on Thursday, the final day of the 2021 legislative session, so the bill can’t become law this year. The Senate could take the bill up in January.