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The leader of the South Carolina House of Representatives unveiled a new committee Thursday that he said will hopefully bring about “substantial reforms” to improve the state’s criminal justice system and policies currently used by law enforcement across the state.
On Thursday, House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, announced the creation of the House Equitable Justice System and Law Enforcement Reform Committee that will address four reforms: law enforcement training, tactics standards and accountability, civil asset forfeiture, the criminal process and procedure, and sentencing reform.
The committee’s creation comes amid nationwide protests, including in South Carolina, calling for the end of police brutality and equitable justice for African Americans after George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, died last month after a white police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd died after he told the office that he could not breathe.
The incident was captured on video that went viral.
Four officers have been charged in Floyd’s death.
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House leaders Gary Simrill, R-York, and Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, will chair the 18-person House panel.
“Today, I announced the formation of a special House committee to address the urgent issues that our nation and state have been grappling with in recent weeks,” Lucas said in a statement on Thursday. “The S.C. House of Representatives has always been the people’s house. It will remain so by being the place where all viewpoints are expressed, heard and considered and where meaningful, open debate occurs. These challenging times are no exception.”
Lucas named S.C. Rep. Chris Wooten, a former highway patrol trooper, to the committee. The Lexington Republican said the committee should focus on setting a uniform set of standards that all law enforcement offices have to follow, including policies on use of force, vehicle pursuits and an officers’ duty to intervene if they see misconduct.
A set of standards could lead to a culture change at police agencies across the state, Wooten said.
“If you don’t know what is expected, you’re never going to know if you’re successful,” Wooten said.
Wooten added that he believes they should push for more funding for law enforcement agencies, which could be used to pay for accreditation fees and officer raises. Law enforcement officers are expected to act as emergency medical responders, mental health clinicians and at times, their own prosecutors without receiving a pay raise, Wooten said.
“We neglected out teachers for 20-25 years, and we see what happened there,” Wooten said. “The same has happened to our law enforcement agencies.”
He also thinks there may be a push to fully fund a body camera initiative passed by the state Legislature in 2015.
Named to the committee, state Rep. Ivory Thigpen, D-Richland, said he hopes the panel will focus on increasing police accountability by tasking a state agency to do third-party investigations into excessive force or deadly force incidents. Nearly all state law enforcement agencies use the State Law Enforcement Division to perform investigations into shootings that involve police.
Richland County, however, does not.
“I think there’s a belief or a feeling among the public that law enforcement sometimes is above the law,” Thigpen said. “But that doesn’t mean we’ve given them a blank check or that we’re not going to hold them accountable for their actions as well.”
Thigpen added the Legislature should set clear definitions on what is considered excessive force and probable cause to perform a search.
“I think we need to be clear on the rules of engagement,” Thigpen said. “I think we need to be clear on what are and are not trained and acceptable police maneuvers, especially when we get around choke holds.”
S.C. Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, who is also on the committee, said she hoped the panel would take on passing hate crime legislation. South Carolina is one of four states that has no such legislation on the books.
“We really need to get with the program and see this as a real concern and treat it seriously,” Bernstein said.
Specifically, she envisions adding enhanced penalties for people convicted of hate crimes under a potential new law, much like federal hate crime statutes that are also in place.
She also wants to focus on sentencing reform — an issue some lawmakers have been trying to tackle for years — and racial equality in sentencing.
Bernstein, though, said that she will not advocate for defunding police, a popular idea that has spread as protesters hit the street and call for reform. Instead, she said she would focus on implementing new policing policies and procedures.
“Obviously, what we’ve seen just most recently with the George Floyd incident … is that we really need to come together and figure out some reforms that can be made,” Bernstein said.