Three months ago, Julian Betton was shot by three members of the 15th Circuit Drug Enforcement Unit.
In the aftermath of the incident, which left Betton paralyzed and in a hospital for weeks, two versions of the same story emerged, one told by the suspect (Betton faces three counts of possession with intent to distribute small amounts of marijuana), the other came from the officers.
The suspect’s version - on one critical point - was the truth, even though an investigation raised other questions that remain unresolved.
The officers said they were forced to shoot into Betton’s Withers Swash apartment several dozen times — with multiple bullets hitting the 30-year-old Myrtle Beach painter — because he shot at them first.
That was not true, an investigation by an independent prosecutor found.
Not only did Betton not fire first — he didn’t shoot at all.
Residents of the Grand Strand seem to have given that revelation a collective yawn. The cops are good guys. Betton, who had a one-year prison sentence for cocaine trafficking in Ohio but until this year had never been charged with any crime in South Carolina, is automatically the bad guy.
So why should we care?
Do we think that only “perfect” victims — like the Emanuel 9 who were gunned down while studying the Bible allegedly by a white supremacist — deserve to have their stories told, let alone believed? That’s how many of us quietly feel, even though we live in the Bible Belt and know of Jesus’s admonishments to be careful about how we view and treat the undesirables among us.
Despite discovering that the officers’ version of events included a major falsehood, the prosecutor deemed the shooting justified because officers said Betton pointed a gun at them. Police officers in South Carolina, and nationwide, are seldom charged with crimes for what they do while wearing a badge, and it’s even rarer for them to be convicted.
This case, and the reaction to it, illustrates just how much work remains before serious reform can take hold, despite Tuesday’s speech by President Obama on the subject and an apparent growing bipartisan consensus to correct criminal justice wrongs.
Our current default is to automatically believe police officers and distrust the people with whom they’ve had encounters.
On one level, that makes sense. We pay their salaries and give them an enormous amount of power to help keep order, to help bring justice to victims and stop perpetrators.
From early on, most of us are taught to trust police officers - and without question - because they put their lives on the line for us.
On another level, that kind of blind reverence can lead to awful things — and has.
An officer in Lexington County shot a man who had been eagerly complying with him. The officer then blamed the man for being threatening, the officer’s lie only discovered because of a dashcam video.
In North Charleston, an officer seemed prepared to make a similar claim after he shot Walter Scott multiple times in the back — but a bystander recorded the incident.
Had there been no video, there’s little doubt the lies told by those officers would have been believed.
When police officers do wrong, they are often policed by their own, the very people who are supposed to be solely focused on bringing justice but too often get trapped by loyalties to those who share their burden.
A National Institute of Justice study found that “police officers do not always report even serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers” and that a code of silence within departments is a significant problem. The study was based upon surveys of police officers themselves.
While law enforcement officials in Myrtle Beach and beyond repeatedly demand that vulnerable people in high-crime neighborhoods come forward with information about wrongdoing in their communities — despite real risks to their personal safety — officers often don’t hold themselves to that same standard.
In the case of the Myrtle Beach shooting, the claim has changed from Betton supposedly firing first — evidence showed he didn’t — to Betton allegedly pointing a gun at the officers. Had Betton changed his story that way, no one would said he must have made a mistake in the fog of an intense encounter. It would have been used against him, and the prosecutor likely would have said he was a liar and added charges.
But police officers are often not subject to that kind of scrutiny - even when they say something at odds with the evidence.
Could the officers have simply been mistaken, that they saw a gun and assumed Betton was firing at them, as their defenders claim?
Of course. It’s possible that they are telling the truth about that part of the story.
But it’s also possible that Betton is telling the truth, that he was shocked to see three men who had not identified themselves storming through his apartment door as he left the bathroom.
Given that he had been robbed before, it stands to reason he could have believed it was happening again.
It could be that this was another case of a no-knock entrance gone horribly wrong — others have led to innocent people being badly harmed or killed — and the criminal justice system is once again explaining away actions it shouldn’t.
Raising such questions isn’t anti-police — it is pro-justice.