BLUFFTON, S.C. (WSAV) – The Bluffton Police Department is working on improving its relationship with the public and its policies in the wake of recent officer-involved incidents across the country.
The department is doing so with the help of some of its younger citizens.
“That’s part of being professional being able to look at things and we need to make a little bit of a change to be even better,” says Bluffton Police Cpt. Joe Babkiewicz.
Bluffton Police hopes the changes they are making will better their service and relationship with the public.
“I think it builds that trust with us and the community showing that the officers are not going to put up with unethical behavior,” explains Babkiewicz. “They are going to step up they are going to stop it from happening.”
As first reported by the Island Packet newspaper, Bluffton officers now officially have “duty to intervene.” If they see a fellow officer using unnecessary and potentially illegal force, they must step in and step up to stop it.
“We just wanted it to be more direct, informing our officers this is what we expect you to do. You have a responsibility to intervene when you see something wrong,” says the captain. “Whether its a crime being committed by a citizen or a crime being committed by an officer. If there’s a medical emergency we expect you to step up and do that. It is just raising the level of professionalism for our agency .”
“Even if you think you are the best you can always been a better role model,” said Walter Wheeler.
That’s why the 20-year-old and several other young Black activists sat down to talk with Bluffton Police a few weeks ago, after the Black Lives Matter rallies in the town, to discuss their use of force policies.
Walter says the police have shown they support many of the policies in the national #8CantWait campaign, which details eight different policies groups would like to see implemented by local police departments around the nation, including banning chokeholds and not shooting at moving cars. Seven of those policies the Bluffton Police Department already has in place.
The only one that was not agreed to is asking officers to tell a suspect they are going to shoot before firing their weapon.
“If you have an active shooter in a school you don’t have time to yell stop or I’m going to shoot because that person is already a threat and is already shooting at people,” said Babkiewicz. “So our job is to stop the threat as quickly as possible to save lives.”
“There may be a point when officers have to use force we don’t want them to hesitate in that, because that’s how people and officers get injured,” he continued. “But if there’s an opportunity to deescalate a situation our officers are going to make every effort to do that.”
Wheeler says he just wanted to have a dialogue to help both sides understand better and make guidelines that benefit and protect everyone.
“We don’t think you guys (Bluffton Police) are doing a bad job. We don’t want you guys to think we think you are bad cops, that there’s tension between the community and people in power right now,” said Wheeler. “We just want you to realize that you can always do better.”
“If there was more transparency then I think everyone would be happy,” he added. “If everyone knew how policies were changing and we thought that would be the number one goal.”
Babkiewicz believes no officer on this force right now wants to hurt anyone, Black or white.
“If there is ever a police officer that comes into this agency that wants to shoot somebody they will no longer have a job here,” he said.
“They put on the badge because they want to help the community and we are taking steps to show we are doing what we can to stay professional,” said Babkiewicz. “And if we see someone acting unprofessionally we will do what we can to hold them accountable. That’s what the officers want.”
For officers who do not follow the policy — and don’t intervene — they could face suspension, firing and potentially even criminal charges.
“If you don’t hold your own responsible, how are you going to hold people in the community responsible?” said Babkiewicz. “We are held to a higher standard in law enforcement and we need to adhere to that.”
If it went that far another agency, like the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, would step in to do the investigation.