A Different World

Why South Carolina cops are almost never charged for wrongful shootings

An image from the video of a North Charleston police officer, Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, shooting fleeing Walter Scott multiple times in the back. | The New York Times
An image from the video of a North Charleston police officer, Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, shooting fleeing Walter Scott multiple times in the back. | The New York Times

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The Post and Courier in Charleston recently did a multi-part series on how many times police officers in South Carolina fire their guns and what happens during investigations resulting from questionable and potentially criminal shootings.

It’s a revealing series, and well-worth the read. Hopefully, the folks in Columbia, SLED and the General Assembly, have (or plan to) read it.

You can find the entire series here.

Here’s a taste of it:

Among the findings:

An officer in Summerville pumps four bullets through the side and back windows of a fleeing car, killing a young man.

An officer in Duncan sees a woman climb into his cruiser, yells, “Get out or I’ll shoot you!” and then does just that.

An officer in North Charleston shoots eight bullets at Walter Scott’s back, killing him on the spot.

Every 10 days on average, South Carolina law enforcement officers point their guns at someone and pull the triggers — 235 shootings since 2009. Eighty-nine people died, and 96 were wounded.

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Each shooting also triggered an investigation into whether officers were justified in using deadly force. With just a few notable exceptions, these officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. To be sure, many cases were open and shut: Armed robbers shooting their way out of convenience stores after holdups; rage-filled drunks bent on destruction; suicidal people daring cops to cut them down.

But a Post and Courier investigation uncovered case after case where agents with the State Law Enforcement Division failed to answer key questions about what happened, failed to document the troubled backgrounds of the officers who drew their guns, and failed to pinpoint missteps and tactical mistakes that could be used to prevent future bloodshed.

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Never-before released dashboard videos also reveal a disturbing pattern of officers shooting at and into vehicles. In statements to SLED, officers said they fired because they were afraid of being injured or killed by these cars and trucks. But the videos show that some officers were out of harm’s way when they opened fire. And SLED case files show little or no documentation that the officers’ accounts were challenged over these inconsistencies.

The thoroughness of these investigations can mean the difference between justice delivered and justice denied. A shoddy examination can hamper prosecutions and make it impossible to convict those who are criminally culpable; it can lead to rogue officers remaining on the streets with badges and guns; it can undermine public trust in law enforcement. ...

In about 25 percent of the shootings, officers fired into fleeing cars, a practice that many departments across the country have all but banned, including the city of Charleston. The New York City Police Department prohibited officers from shooting at moving vehicles in 1972, one of several moves that dramatically reduced shootings there.

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Almost any shooting by police here, whether blindly into cars or into fleeing suspects’ backs, can be ruled justified if officers say they felt their lives were in danger, a vague standard that opens the door to abuse.

Shootings disproportionately affect minorities. While 28 percent of South Carolina’s population is black, more than half of those shot by police were black.

SLED portrays itself as an independent agency that treats police shootings as it would any other incident. In reality, officers are shielded from the kind of questioning detectives typically use to uncover the truth.

After shootings, SLED and other agencies routinely wait two or more days before interviewing officers. Often, officers merely hand over handwritten statements. In one case, SLED allowed an officer who killed a Berkeley County man to email a statement through her attorney.

While officers get cooling-off periods, investigators typically question witnesses immediately. After deputies shot a homeowner in the neck in Hollywood this month, a Charleston County sheriff’s investigator questioned the man in the ambulance as paramedics tried to patch his wounds.

SLED routinely runs criminal records and drivers’ checks on suspects and witnesses, but SLED’s case files show almost no documentation of officers’ previous shootings or misconduct.

While not mandated to investigate these shootings, SLED is the go-to choice for most departments. SLED's participation shields departments from being accused of protecting their officers. Some consider SLED’s role as an independent arbiter a national model. In reality, SLED turns over its findings to local solicitors who in the majority of cases decide whether officers are cleared — prosecutors who work hand-in-glove with police.

Officer-involved shootings are costly in blood and money. In the past decade, lawsuits challenging officers’ actions have cost South Carolina municipalities and their insurers at least $17 million.

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