More people pulled guns on police during a record number of officer-involved shootings in 2015 compared to the previous year, and the number of police injured in shootings rose by half.
With 48 officer-involved shootings, 2015 marked the highest number in South Carolina since the State Law Enforcement Division began keeping track in 1999. That’s because more people are pulling guns on police officers, who had to defend themselves, law enforcement officials say.
In 26 of the 48 instances, suspects pulled guns on officers. That’s up almost 45 percent from 18 instances in 2014, according to SLED numbers.
Officer-involved shootings in 2015 in which a suspect pulled a gun on an officer
Officer-involved shootings in 2014 in which a suspect pulled a gun on an officer
“It sure seems to me, and I think most officers would agree, that criminals are more likely to use a firearm against an officer today than what they did in the past,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott agreed, saying today’s generation lives by the gun.
“When I first started my career, you’d lock up bad guys and nobody would have guns,” Lott said. “If you chased somebody, you might have to chase them down on foot and fight them. Nobody had guns back then. Now, everybody has guns. All these kids have guns.”
Nearly 45 percent
Increase in the number of times a suspect pulled a gun on an officer in 2015, from 2014
Lott said that change comes as gangs expand their reach and control the drug trade.
“They’re willing to take a chance and shoot a police officer and think they can get away with it,” he said. “In years past, they would not even consider anything like that.”
The sheriff added that a recent court ruling limiting the use of stun guns in several states, including South Carolina, will make the situation worse for officers and suspects alike.
“I think that’s going to have a significant impact on our safety, have officers not sure what they’re going to do,” he said. “When you have that, you have officers hesitate. Sometimes when you hesitate, you get killed, you get injured.”
NO SMALL CONSEQUENCES
The consequences of more shootings are often severe.
Fourteen officers and 14 suspects were injured during last year’s 48 officer-involved shootings. One officer, Greg Alia of the Forest Acres Police Department, and 19 suspects were killed, according to SLED.
In 2014, there were 42 officer-involved shootings, with nine officers and 20 suspects injured, SLED records show. One officer was killed in 2014, along with 18 suspects.
The year 2014 saw a significant uptick in officers injured. During 42 officer-involved shootings in 2013, six officers were injured and none were killed. In that same time, 16 suspects were injured and 18 were killed.
What shooting numbers mean is hard to say without detailed context for each shooting, cautioned Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force. But he said part of the issue comes down to culture.
“We live in a gun culture, and the South is probably the most prolific area of the country where guns are present,” he said.
There were 276,084 active concealed weapons permits in the state as of Dec. 31, 2015, according to SLED. But Alpert, Keel and Lott all agree that the problem is with people carrying guns illegally, not with CWP holders.
Alpert contrasted police culture in America with that of Scotland, where most officers do not carry firearms.
“They deal with people on a totally different plane,” he said. “Even with (people who have) knives, officers don’t respond with guns. Now, it’s a different culture (there). The citizens aren’t as likely to shoot police.”
Another contributing factor, according to Keel, is simple math. The population in South Carolina has continued to increase – going from about 3.5 million in 1990 to about 4.8 million in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means more interaction between citizens and law enforcement.
A key part of addressing the issue is de-escalating situations to avoid injuries and deaths, law enforcement officials say. And that requires training – teaching officers to navigate difficult situations in a way that doesn’t end with lethal force.
“We’ve got to train better,” Keel said. “We’ve got to look at these incidents and figure out how can we handle these incidents better so they would not have led to a shooting. On the other side, the public, they need to comply with law enforcement.”
But changing training methods is easier said than done. The current, mandatory officer training program at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy is 12 weeks long. If the academy had more funding and more manpower, Director Hubert Harrell said, he’d like to add another two or three weeks.
“We’re trying to change a person’s whole cultural aspect, his entire demeanor, to fit the mold of a law enforcement officer,” Harrell said. “The military can do it in 12 weeks of boot camp, but even then, they don’t always make the transition.”
Harrell also emphasized the importance of on-the-job training, when agencies send new officers out with field training officers or experienced cops who know the community well.
South Carolina’s rise in officer-involved shootings comes at a time when police use of force is being scrutinized nationally.
Law enforcement fatally shot 990 people in 2015 in the United States, according to numbers compiled recently by The Washington Post. Of those, 856 were armed with a deadly weapon, 61 with a vehicle and 39 with a toy weapon; 97 were unarmed. In 40 of those deaths, the database lists “unknown” in the weapon category.
The FBI intends to substantially expand its system for tracking fatal officer-involved shootings in 2017, according to published reports. At the moment, there isn’t a comprehensive national database.
“It’s kind of embarrassing the media has better data than the government or researchers,” Alpert said.
South Carolina is one of only a few states that keep statewide statistics on officer-involved shootings, he added.
But while much attention has focused on teaching officers to communicate and understand people from various backgrounds, Harrell said building such skills takes time and experience.
“How do you teach those to a 21-year-old in those 12 weeks, especially when you’re trying to teach him the basic skills he needs to survive?” he said.
Number of times someone in SC pulled a gun on police, 2015
Number of times someone in SC pulled a gun on police, 2014
Nearly 45 percent
The increase in forced confrontations