Legislation that would create an entirely new police force to guard the Statehouse is now in the South Carolina Senate after clearing the House last week.
Currently, three different entities provide security at the Statehouse. The Bureau of Protective Services (part of the Cabinet-level Department of Public Safety) protects the grounds, including the Governor’s Office. Meanwhile, the House and Senate each have their own officers under the Sergeant at Arms who provide security over the respective chambers and legislative office buildings.
The proposal would merge the three entities into a new Capitol Police Force. Lead sponsor State Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) called it an effort to improve efficiency.
“Picture, if you will, an active shooter… when we have the number of children and visitors we do at the Statehouse,” he said before an 89-2 vote to pass the bill Wednesday. “We have (three) people making decisions in different jurisdictions. This would make it a much more efficient structure safety-wise in a crisis management situation.”
But the bill’s timing has raised some questions. Its passage in the House comes more than 10 months after State Rep. Ted Vick (D-Chesterfield) was arrested for suspected DUI in the Statehouse parking garage. In that case, a BPS officer arrested Vick after he reported seeing the lawmaker struggle to his pickup, then strike a safety cone while trying to leave.
Under the legislation, the BPS officers at the Statehouse would be shifted out from the governor’s control and under the purview of the newly created Chief of the Capitol Police Force. That chief would serve at the discretion of a committee led by the House and Senate Sergeant at Arms, who are each elected by legislators. Pitts said any officers who currently serve under BPS would transition to the new police force.
At least one lawmaker is questioning why the change is needed. “I think it’s unnecessary and more of a power play than anything else,” State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said after the vote. “If we’re not saving money, it’s just a question of who’s in charge.”
Pitts insisted the legislation is not retaliation for the Vick arrest. “I have been working on law enforcement consolidation bills for the last five years,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “(A similar) bill was actually passed by the Senate several years ago. The timing could look that way, but it certainly is not.”
The bill’s future is still very uncertain. It will be introduced in the Senate on Tuesday, but senators will only have roughly two months to pass it before the regular session ends in June.
A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley did not have any comment on the bill when contacted last week.