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McMaster signs SC police reform bill into law

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Published: May. 24, 2022 at 7:22 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Nearly two years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests and calls for change in law enforcement nationwide, South Carolina now has a new law on the books to regulate how law enforcement agencies operate.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster signed that bill, H.3050, into law Monday, after it passed the state’s House of Representatives with bipartisan support last year, with some members of both parties also voting against it, and unanimously passed the Senate earlier this year.

House members beat a crucial deadline to advance the final version of the bill to McMaster’s desk before the two-year legislative session ended May 12.

“We said, ‘If we don’t get it done now, it’s not going to get done. We need to strike while the iron is hot,’” Rep. Chris Wooten, R – Lexington, said.

Wooten, one of the bill’s sponsors and a former law enforcement officer, said state lawmakers found out during conversations after Floyd’s death and the national outcry that followed, that it wasn’t just the public demanding changes to policing in South Carolina: Law enforcement itself was as well.

“Our officers were crying out for their profession to be honorable and helped,” he said. “No one hates a bad cop worse than a good cop.”

The law requires noncertified officers work alongside certified officers when they are on duty, forbidding them from performing law enforcement duties alone until they are fully trained.

It expands on what qualifies as police misconduct, including officers failing to intervene when they see another officer abusing members of the public, regardless of if they are in custody, and for willfully failing to report another officer’s misconduct, and it requires agencies report officer misconduct to the state within a certain period of time.

Wooten said this change will add more accountability in keeping bad officers out, especially in smaller departments.

“You know, 60% of our agencies, I think, are 10 officers or less in South Carolina, so an officer may get in trouble there and didn’t have to be reported,” Wooten said. “He’d just bounce over to another agency, and that kind of happened here and there as they would continue to bounce, and we just saw it as obviously an issue.”

The law bans chokeholds across the state outside of circumstances in which the use of deadly force would be allowed and considered “objectively reasonable.”

It also requires the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council — an 11-member body which includes the state’s attorney general, SLED chief, and police chiefs and sheriffs from larger and smaller counties and municipalities — develop minimum standards and policies for all agencies regarding use of force, vehicle pursuits, no-knock warrants, hiring and firing practices, bodycam use, and processes for investigating complaints and tracking “at-risk” officer behavior, among other policies.

A new compliance division within the training council would review these policies every three years and ensure departments are following them. Penalties for agencies not in compliance range from fines of up to $1,000 per violation per day of noncompliance to temporarily suspending the certification of every officer on the force, preventing them from enforcing the law.

“If you’re a department and you can’t implement these minimum standards, then you don’t need to be a department,” Wooten said. “We’ll collapse it and let the sheriff’s department take it over — whatever we need to do because every citizen has a right to have a great law enforcement force around them.”

While most of the law went into effect as soon as McMaster signed it, the components regarding the Law Enforcement Training Council’s establishment of standards and its compliance division will not go into effect until the beginning of 2023.

“The big purpose of this bill is that our officers all go through the Criminal Justice Academy, and there was accountability and training standards for every officer, but not for the agencies. So, there was no minimum standard policy across the board for agencies in South Carolina,” Wooten said.

But some believe the new changes do not go far enough to totally reform law enforcement in South Carolina.

“I am encouraged that there’s going to be some oversight, an institution that’s going to set up policies and procedures that all law enforcement agencies have to follow,” ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Allen Chaney said. “But ultimately, police accountability has to include the public, has to include civilians, has to include not just members of the police apparatus.”

Chaney said this law also does not address what he described as over-policing of certain populations and of nonviolent crimes, such as marijuana possession.

“If we want to reduce dangerous law enforcement-civilian encounters, we should just reduce the encounters overall,” Chaney said. “Statistically, that’s a far better outcome.”

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