A new policy in South Carolina will allow officers’ names to be withheld from the public in shootings, unless the cops are criminally prosecuted— an unusual guideline that prevents transparency, experts claim.
The rule, handed down recently by 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins and affecting Greenville and Pickens counties in South Carolina, is a clear departure from how law enforcement agencies typically treat the disclosure of officers’ identities, the Greenville News reported. As concerns grow among Black folks for more accountability for officers in deadly shootings and excessive force encounters, the policy will likely face strong opposition.
“I think that’s a mistake, for a couple of reasons,” Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said about the policy, which rebukes the standard 72-hour window to release an officer’s name. “For one, I think refusing to release an officer’s name is frankly anti-democratic.”
Activists have said that the public has a right to know what cops fatally shoot civilians, especially with deadly shootings of people of color having prompted national outcry. The policy comes at a time when the nation is on alert about police brutality and shootings, and the need for cops to practice de-escalation is at a high.
Also, officers are government employees and public servants, Stoughton said. They know that they are held to a higher professional standard and subject to public scrutiny, he added.
A 2004 South Carolina Supreme Court ruling declared that cops are public employees, and “their behavior is of vital public interest that outweighs the right to privacy,” The Associated Press reported. Public interest is even more important in cases where cops have endangered or fatally shot someone.
“Particularly with the relatively extreme action of taking someone’s life or attempting to by shooting at them, there’s a strong public interest in knowing relevant details and that includes an officer’s name,” Stoughton said.
Knowing a cop’s identity can also shed light on if the officer has a dangerous history or ties to violent incidents with citizens, something that shapes the public response to the officer, Stoughton said.
The policy protects officers from any potential threats of violence, Wilkins said. But the rule will not apply in cases involving publicly videotaped incidents, which make known the cop’s identity. Law enforcement agencies are still subject to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, an open record law that could be enforced to obtain officers’ names in certain cases.