Officer-involved shootings are up in South Carolina this year compared to the same time last year, which saw a drop from a record-breaking 2015.
Some law enforcement officials say the higher numbers are more a reflection of how violent society has become and less about police officers creating violent scenarios.
As of Thursday, there had been 24 officer-involved shootings in South Carolina compared to 19 at the same time last year and 22 at the same time in 2015, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. However, SLED agents were called Saturday morning to investigate the 25th officer-involved shooting this year. An Upstate police officer fired on a man who began dragging the officer when the lawman tried to remove the man from his car during a traffic stop, police said.
There were 41 officer-involved shootings in all of 2016, according to SLED data. That’s a drop from 48 in 2015, which was the highest number of officer-involved shootings in the state since SLED began keeping records in 1999.
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Locally, there have been six shootings in Richland and Lexington counties this year, compared to four at the same time last year and five at the same time in 2015, according to SLED numbers. The six involved the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, Cayce Department of Public Safety, Lexington Medical Center Public Safety and the Columbia Police Department.
Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs Association, noted that the statewide total of officer-involved shootings has increased and decreased over the years and cautioned that each shooting has its own set of circumstances.
“An increase in shootings doesn’t necessarily mean law enforcement is being more violent,” he said. “They may find themselves in more violent situations, but that’s not indicative of how police are acting toward citizens on a daily basis.”
More violent society
SLED investigates any officer-involved shooting in which an officer fires his or her weapon.
Agents carrying out these investigations conduct interviews, gather and analyze forensic information and view any available video, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said.
The information gathered is then forwarded to the solicitor of that judicial circuit to decide what charges, if any, are appropriate.
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is the only agency in the state to investigate its own officer-involved shootings but has had none so far this year. Sheriff Leon Lott said the uptick in shootings involving officers is a reflection of an increasingly violent society in which firearms are more prevalent.
“It demonstrates the violence that we’ve got out in our communities,” he said. “It’s not just directed at law enforcement; it’s directed at citizens.”
Two of the officer-involved shootings in Richland County last year involved suicidal individuals.
One was a Texas murder suspect who killed himself after a shootout with officers on a U.S. Marshals task force when the officers tried to serve warrants on him near the Dorn VA Medical Center in January 2016. The second happened in August during an hourslong standoff and involved a veteran with PTSD who shot himself twice and pointed a gun at a deputy, who then shot him.
“We try to address those situations with more non-lethal force and negotiations,” Lott said. “When somebody is telling us, ‘Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me,’ at that point we know what they’re trying to accomplish.”
‘Our aim is not to use a gun’
In the aftermath of high-profile police shootings around the country, law enforcement agencies are putting more emphasis on training in de-escalation techniques.
Richland County deputies undergo “guardian versus warrior” training to learn de-escalation techniques and how to change their mindset.
“Our aim is not to use a gun,” Lott said. “That’s a priority for us, to solve a situation without ever having to fire our firearms and use deadly force. We’re put in that position to use deadly force based on what the other person is doing.”
Instructors at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy know there are certain factors officers can and cannot control when responding to calls.
Director Jackie Swindler said they train officers to recognize what they can control and to be prepared to react to what they cannot.
“We constantly try to tweak and adjust our training to be more applicable to that which is going on in society around us,” he said. That includes re-creating some officer-involved shootings and using them as teaching opportunities.
“Maybe there’s some factors that could have changed the outcome,” Swindler said. “That ‘maybe’ is a factor because you’ve got humans involved.”
Earlier this year, a grand jury chose not to indict a Forest Acres police officer who stood in front of a car and fired several shots at it as the teen driver drove away in May 2016. The driver, who was later arrested and charged, was hit at least once.
SLED Chief Mark Keel recently overhauled the state’s officer training to include instructing officers on how to better handle traffic stops and avoid shooting into vehicles.
The number of S.C. shootings in which an officer considered the suspect’s vehicle to be a weapon fell from 13 in 2015 to six in 2016, The Associated Press reported.
Changing the culture
Law enforcement agencies and officers can adjust their training, but Lott, Bruder and Swindler all say curbing officer-involved shootings is a collective effort.
“We’ve got to create a generation that doesn’t live and die by the gun,” Lott said. “We have a generation now that thinks all problems can be solved by a gun, a gun is the answer to anything. And it’s not.”
Bruder said officers and the public need to better understand each other’s position.
That means officers realizing the person they are dealing with “is going to be a little more on edge,” and the person who is pulled over in a traffic stop recognizing that officers have concern for their own safety, he said.
“Parents need to teach their children, adults need to learn to control their tempers, police need to learn how to act and talk better,” Swindler said. “The onus is on everyone to do their part.”
Police shootings in the Midlands this year
Cayce: Pointing a weapon at officers
Cayce Department of Public Safety officers on Feb. 5 responded to a home on the 100 block of Tufton Court after a neighbor reported hearing gunshots. Officers tried calling the person in the home but were unsuccessful, then knocked on the front door.
Investigators said John William Day, 55, opened the front door with a gun in his hand, which he pointed at the officers. Two officers fired their weapons, hitting Day in the abdomen.
Day was charged with pointing and presenting a firearm and discharging a firearm within city limits.
Lexington County: Ramming patrol cars
Lexington County sheriff’s deputies and U.S. marshals were trying to serve felony warrants on a suspect on Feb. 22 when, officials say, his car rammed two patrol cars on Cunningham Road near the Edmund community.
He was shot multiple times by officers.
The warrants were connected to a Gaston shooting earlier that month.
Officials have not named the suspect, and there has been no word on charges.
Columbia: A carjacking
Columbia police officers were called to the Walmart on Bush River Road around noon on April 26 after someone reported a man carrying a gun and acting erratically at the store.
Police say the gunman, 25-year-old Joseph Ryan Morin-Sevrie, shot and injured a 76-year-old man during a carjacking attempt at the gas station outside the Walmart.
After locking himself inside the station’s convenience store, Morin-Sevrie fled out another door, police said. He shot at officers, and two officers fired several rounds at him, striking him at least once, investigators said.
There’s been no word on charges for Morin-Sevrie.
Lexington Medical Center: Wanted for grand larceny
A Lexington Medical Center police officer fired at a car in the hospital parking lot April 27 after the car hit the officer as it fled.
Officials said the officer was notified that the suspect, 38-year-old Stephen Johnson Craft II, had an outstanding warrant for grand larceny, and approached Craft as he sat behind the wheel of the car. Investigators say Craft drove off, striking the officer, who fired shots at the car.
The officer was treated and released from the hospital. Craft was charged with attempted murder.
Lexington County: A foot chase and threats
A man was fatally shot by a Lexington County deputy May 9 while officers from several agencies tried to serve arrest warrants on him.
The officers encountered the man, 39-year-old John Bittle, outside a home on Seleta Circle, and a foot chase ensued. After the foot chase, Bittle made threatening statements to the officers, and “an encounter ended with (the) deputy shooting the suspect,” Sheriff Jay Koon said at the time.
Bittle had led deputies on a car chase about a month earlier and had reportedly threatened violence toward law enforcement since then.
Downtown Columbia: Two Cayce officers shot
Two Cayce Public Safety officers were shot and wounded during a traffic stop attempt in the early hours of May 27.
The officers tried to stop a car as it traveled across the Blossom Street bridge into Columbia. The driver, 19-year-old Eugene Jonathon James, led the officers on a short car chase and then a foot chase before hiding in woods near Gist Street in the Granby community, where he is accused of shooting both officers as they confronted him.
The officers returned fire, striking James. Both officers were hospitalized and later released. James was charged with two counts of attempted murder and weapons charges. There was dashcam footage of the shooting, which The State newspaper has requested. Even though Cayce Public Safety is in Lexington County, the shooting is counted toward Richland County’s totals because it happened in Columbia, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said.
Officer-involved shootings: A look back
SOURCE: S.C. State Law Enforcement Division
Note: Totals prior to 2011 may or may not include all officer-involved shootings because reports were voluntary before that year.