Earlier this month, a 35-year-old man was wielding a butcher knife at 1700 North Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach with the hopes that police would shoot him, according to a Myrtle Beach police report.
When Myrtle Beach police officers arrived to the call of “suspicious circumstances” just after 2 p.m. on Nov. 3, the man led police back and forth across the busy highway.
After the man came back toward police, an officer asked, “Why do you want to do this?” the man said, “I told you to shoot me. … You’re going to [expletive] shoot me.”
The man was shot with a Taser and eventually apprehended.
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In 2015, police departments along the Grand Strand had three officer-involved shootings — none of which involved suicidal subjects. In 2016, there have been four — two of them involved suicidal subjects, according to police reports that identified the men as suicidal, and one of those resulted in death. The fourth was a North Myrtle Beach officer who was shot in the foot, but has recovered.
Police officers take an oath to serve and protect their communities, fight crime and resolve disputes that otherwise cannot be addressed civilly. But now, a simple call of distress can lead to an officer firing his or her service weapon, spending weeks or months on administrative leave and may leave the officer dealing with an experience that can lead to emotional and physical ramifications that last a lifetime.
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It’s shortly before 3:26 a.m. March 26 and Donald Andrew White walks into the Scotchman on 21st Avenue North and Robert Grissom Parkway.
The 55-year-old transient had been in Myrtle Beach for about three weeks, having spent time in Texas, Tennessee and New Hampshire before settling at the beach. White tells the store clerk that there’s a man behind the store with a gun, so the clerk calls police. As it turns out, he’s the man with the gun, and he’s on a “suicide by cop” mission to end his life, according to the police report.
It’s a growing trend. You have to figure, we get a lot of people here from other places, and they bring their issues with them... They come here for a year, two years, three years, and they bring their problems with them.
Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall
“It’s a growing trend,” said Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall. “You have to figure, we get a lot of people here from other places, and they bring their issues with them... They come here for a year, two years, three years, and they bring their problems with them.
“There’s an expectation that they’re going to come here and it’s going to be the land of milk and honey, and it turns out that it’s a tough place to get employed and stay employed and find the things that you want to do if you haven’t made your plans. It’s a great place to live if you plan for it. …”
Officers Michael Hearon, Brendan Hyde and Jeff Thomas were placed on administrative duties for six months as White’s case was being investigated. All three have been cleared to be back on the road.
Fast forward just nine days. Myrtle Beach police are called for a suicidal subject with a gun at 79th Avenue North and Marina Parkway. Police find the man’s car and search for him in a wooded area. He points a gun at police officers and police shoot.
“We didn’t expect one, but we certainly didn’t expect two,” Gall said of the second suicidal person. “And then this one that happened just recently came very close to being three.”
Officers Jarrod Mackin, Matthew Cherba and Melanie Best were placed on administrative duties for two months until all were cleared of wrongdoing for the Marina Parkway case.
Gall said since April, and even before the second shooting happened, Myrtle Beach police’s training staff was working on in-service training scenarios for officer-involved shootings.
“After these last two incidents in the spring, we really felt like we really needed to separate (suicide by cop) out and put a whole lot more emphasis on it, so that’s what our training staff did, and they actually presented that in our ongoing training this fall,” Gall said.
Until 2015, the city of Myrtle Beach had a mental health counselor on staff, and prior to that — in the 1980s — the department would have its own mental health counselor.
“Back in the mid-80s, we actually had a mental health counselor assigned to the police department,” Gall said. “That person would help us out with our internal mental health issues. It would help out with the mental health issues of the people who were in jail, and it would help out with some of our training, like how to deal with these people.”
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On the afternoon of June 24, the Horry County Police Department was dispatched to a suspicious vehicle at the Myrtle Beach State Park. When they arrived, they saw a man sitting in a vehicle with a rifle. Four minutes after arriving, shots were fired, and the man was injured.
Officer Chandler Mullinax, who has been a sworn officer in South Carolina since July 2012 and with Horry County since March, was later placed on administrative leave pending an investigation of the case.
“The incident where we had in June, you had someone who had a weapon … and you have to escalate that force,” said new Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill, who was not chief when the incident occurred. “Not meet force with force, but escalate that force to resolve that situation or to stop that criminal act. Officers are being trained to get cover, disengage and avoid pulling that trigger when at all possible.
“I think it’s the right thing to do. What I’m afraid of, in law enforcement senior leadership, is I don’t want an officer to risk their lives because they are afraid of using the force they are trained to use to stop an aggressive act. We don’t shoot to kill, we shoot to stop an aggressive act. If I can shoot you one time, center mass, to stop that forward movement with a gun or knife or beat me about the head and face and that will resolve the issue and you don’t die, that’s a win-win for all of us.”
Mullinax was cleared and back to work Sept. 8.
Folks think we are machines, that we wear this uniform and this badge and we don’t have any feelings. We just go from call to call to call to call. I can tell you that’s not the case. I can tell you every dead baby call I’ve ever been on. I remember every call where I have thought about pulling the trigger or was in the process of pulling the trigger. It never leaves you, and I can only imagine the officer who actually pulls that trigger, what they deal with day in and day out.
Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill
“Folks think we are machines, that we wear this uniform and this badge and we don’t have any feelings,” Hill said. “We just go from call to call to call to call. I can tell you that’s not the case. I can tell you every dead baby call I’ve ever been on. I remember every call where I have thought about pulling the trigger or was in the process of pulling the trigger. It never leaves you, and I can only imagine the officer who actually pulls that trigger, what they deal with day in and day out.”
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When an officer discharges a firearm in Myrtle Beach or Horry County, police are instructed to secure the crime scene and call the State Law Enforcement Division. The officers involved turn over their firearms for evidence.
“Unless something popped up that was really strange or the person was demonstrating that they didn’t need to possess a firearm, we re-issue them another firearm because they still are police officers,” Gall said.
Officer are then placed on an administrative assignment — paperwork, investigative and desk work.
“We try to find them bonafide, valid work to do so they don’t feel like they’re spinning their wheels,” Gall said. “They may assist with training. We may have ongoing training that we need extra bodies for to help out with scenarios. … We don’t want to alienate them and say, ‘We’re putting you off in the corner. You’re no value to us.’ That’s completely the opposite. That’s why they … retain their badge, they retain their identity as a police officer. They haven’t lost that. They’re just not out on the road doing the enforcement duties until we get this thing cleared up.”
SLED begins its investigation and both agencies have policies that call for an administrative review to see if the officers involved properly followed their departments’ procedures.
A local peer support team, made up of trained coworkers and sometimes other regional law enforcement officials, is there to talk to the officers as they go through the shooting incident.
Next is the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which will bring more peer support, chaplaincy and help with the wellness of the officer or officers.
“Cops are like soldiers, and they’re like firefighters,” said Eric Skidmore, who leads SCLEAP. “They’re sort of skittish about talking to people who don’t understand what they do or don’t do what they do. And cops will talk to chaplains some. … They’ll listen to chaplains a little bit and they’ll listen to the mental health people a little bit, but we discovered early on, they’ll listen to each other a lot. If there’s a field where peer support is the tip of the spear, law enforcement is the perfect context for that.
Cops are like soldiers, and they’re like firefighters. They’re sort of skittish about talking to people who don’t understand what they do or don’t do what they do. And cops will talk to chaplains some. … They’ll listen to chaplains a little bit and they’ll listen to the mental health people a little bit, but we discovered early on, they’ll listen to each other a lot. If there’s a field where peer support is the tip of the spear, law enforcement is the perfect context for that.
Eric Skidmore, who leads SCLEAP
“We know that that kind of exposure can be particularly horrific to people, and we want to provide them with every kind of resource possible as they make it through that process themselves.”
Skidmore said the SCLEAP team talks with officers about normal reactions to abnormal events.
“Just for the officer to know that somebody cares about them is just tremendous,” he said.
SCLEAP also annually hosts multiple three-day post critical incident seminars, where more than half of attendees are participants, eight are mental health professionals, 25 peer support team members and a couple of chaplains.
What SCLEAP often deals with, Skidmore said, are physical reactions such as nausea or fatigue or grinding teeth when sleeping; cognitive reactions such a sense of hyper vigilance, nightmares or poor attention span; emotional reactions such as fear, guilt, panic, anger or anxiety; and behavioral reactions such as withdrawal, restlessness and adjustments in appetite. Sometimes, Skidmore said, there are spiritual reactions such as withdrawal from their faith-based community.
“And it may be the case that after the post-critical incident seminar, an officer says that I am feeling stuck with my reaction to this incident, I’d like to do some more work on my marriage or I’d like to do some more work on the impact of this critical incident on my life,” Skidmore said. “I’m going to ask SCLEAP to refer me to a clinician in Greenville or Columbia or Myrtle Beach to help me to continue to work on what I started to work on at the (post critical incident seminar). … It’s like a continuum of care over the course of the days, weeks, months and years after their critical incidents.”
Neither Gall nor Hill knew whether the six Myrtle Beach officers or the one Horry County officer received help from mental distress. Both agencies denied allowing the officers to interview for this article citing department policy.
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Cop culture is what it sounds like: a culture of toughness and an expectation to handle any situation, according to Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law. Stoughton teaches criminal law, criminal procedure and a class on police law and policy.
The former Tallahassee, Fla., police officer has given training and presentations for different agencies, including the advisory council for the Columbia Police Department and at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
One of the things that the industry has to do better to support officers is create a culture where stress is treated as the very real occupational hazard that it is and not dismissed as a weakness.
Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law
“One of the things that the industry has to do better to support officers is create a culture where stress is treated as the very real occupational hazard that it is and not dismissed as a weakness,” Stoughton said. “The culture of policing is that officers are supposed to be able to handle themselves and deal with the psychological trauma of some of the stuff that they have to see and some of the stuff they have to do as part of the job. For a long, long time, showing signs of mental distress or emotional disturbance has been viewed as a sign of weakness in law enforcement.”
Stoughton, who has not worked on any local cases and who was speaking generally, said that evidence of the need for more attention to officer wellness was shown when the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing had an entire pillar dealing with officer wellness.
“My work on policing has led me to be, at times, very critical of a profession that I think can do things better,” he said. “But even though I can be critical of law enforcement, I still recognize that almost every officer gets into the profession to help people. In situations involving suicide by cop, officers are put into the worst of no-win situations. Officers don’t want to use lethal force, and they particularly don’t want to use lethal force on someone who needs and could use mental abuse assistance or substance abuse assistance.”
Hill said he has noticed a change in cop culture.
“Over the last 10 years, there’s been a culture shift to where we pay attention to the officer’s feelings,” Hill said. “Before, the sarge would come on scene and strip you of your belt and gun and send you in the back of a squad and you ask yourself, ‘What did I do wrong? Did I do this right? Did I do that right? Am I going to lose my job?’ That same incident, ‘Am I going to lose my freedom? Is someone going to judge me down the line?’ So in the last 10 years there’s been a culture shift to where we pay attention to the officer’s feelings.
“We are concerned about the individual police officer. I don’t care if you cry, I don’t care if you whimper, and I don’t care if you call your mother to come to the scene, or to the precinct, that’s what we’ll do.”
Stoughton said nationwide, more needs to be done to address the mental and physical well-being of officers.
“So when an officer is put into a suicide by cop situation, there are no good alternatives and that can be very difficult for officers to reconcile,” he said. “They dedicate their professional lives to helping people and here’s someone who clearly needed help, who they had to kill. Different officers will react to that in different ways. One of the things that I’m critical of the police profession for not doing as well as I think it should do is addressing mental and a physical well being of officers.”
He has had co-workers who have gone through suicide by cop, but, like other officers who have not gone through it, it’s hard to comprehend.
“While (other officers) might be aware of the situation, none of them can possibly imagine themselves accurately in that situation because none of them have been in a situation like that,” Stoughton said. “So it’s very common for officers to turn to other officers, not necessarily other officers who have been in other lethal events, but other officers who can be in that situation.”
In years past, one of Hill’s former colleagues in Fairfax County, Va., was involved in a shooting, and Hill was his go-to person for solace.
“The first person he wanted to call was me,” Hill said. “We’re like brothers, have been since Day 1 on patrol. He called me, and at that point, I never trained in peer support, I’m not a minister and I’m not a counselor, I’m just his best friend. So I go there, and I know enough not to talk about the case, and I sit with him for about four hours. That supervisor knew enough … that he needed to call somebody he was comfortable with.”
Hill said that cop culture also has included officers covering shifts for each other when some need time off after a trauma.
“Go fishing, go on a motorcycle ride, hug your kids. Whatever you have to do, we’ll talk when you get back,” Hill said. “So, that’s the change in culture that this profession has gone through over the last 10 years.”
Stoughton said making an industry-wide change will be a challenge.
“When an officer is put in a position of taking someone’s life because that person is using the officer as a mechanism to commit suicide, we, as a country and policing as a culture, have gotten better about responding to and understanding the psychological and emotional components of that, but culturally, we still lag far behind where we should be,” Stoughton said. “… Changing that culture is a really tough sell.”
Stoughton uses the following analogy to help explain suicide by cop to non-officers: Imagine driving on a long stretch of highway and someone steps in front of your car. You hit them and kill them. You find out afterward that the person had a note in their pocket that indicated that they were going to commit suicide by stepping in front of a car and you just happened to be driving the car that they stepped in front of. Imagine all of the emotional difficulty, the stress, that the driver would undergo in the immediate aftermath of that event and over the course of the next several days as the driver is interviewed, maybe multiple times. Imagine the feeling of getting your car back from the impound lot where it was being held for for forensic investigation. Imagine the feeling of looking at the car you were driving when you killed someone.
“In some ways, suicide by cop puts officers in a similar situation with the added weight of knowing that the officer wasn’t just driving down the road, but that the officer is there to help someone,” Stoughton said. “So it’s a very, very difficult situation for officers to be in that moment and to deal with the aftermath of that.”
Hill said when an officer is confronted, it’s all about the safety of everyone involved.
“So when we respond to somebody in crisis who says, ‘I want to kill myself, but I don’t, so I’ll let a cop do it. So I have a toy gun and I’m going to force a cop to put me in that situation,’ there’s one of two things that’s going to happen,” Hill said. “That cop is going to respond. That cop’s going to pull that trigger and shoot that person. Or, that cop is going to quickly assess the situation, maybe get behind cover, maybe back out of a situation and de-escalate that so that I’m not forced to shoot that person. Maybe that cop is even good enough to recognize that doggone it, that’s a BB gun. It takes a split second. It could go the other way.”
And it has this year on the Grand Strand.
“Almost on a daily basis we get phone calls from family members or even from individuals who say, ‘I’m getting ready to take my life.’ They call us. There’s nowhere else to call. You call the hotlines and they tell you to take yourself to the hospital or call EMS to come around. They call us,” Gall said.
“We respond to everything. … Nine times out of 10, probably 9.9 times out of 10, the people are happy to see that we care and happy to see that we’re offering them an opportunity for help. Because in reality they really don’t want to hurt themselves. They’re looking for attention. … But there’s always those people, like the instances here, that they’ve reached their end, and they don’t have the courage to do it themselves. They’ve even said, ‘I’m sorry I’ve got to put you through this, and I’m sorry I’m making you do this, but I want you to do your job. Kill me.’”
Officer-involved shootings in Myrtle Beach and Horry County - 2016
At 3:26 a.m., Myrtle Beach police were called by a clerk at Scotchman, 21st Avenue North and Robert Grissom Parkway, for a report of a suspicious man behind their building with a gun. Police confront the man, Donald Andrew White, and he tells them he is suicidal, according to the police report. White then drew his gun, which prompted police to shoot him. He died as a result of the incident.
Officers Involved: Officers Jeff Thomas, Brendan Hyde and Michael Hearon were placed on administrative leave as a result of this incident. Chief Warren Gall said the officers were on administrative duties for six months.
Myrtle Beach police were called to 79th Avenue North and Marina Parkway for a 40-year-old man who police believe was intoxicated, according to a police report. The report states the man’s name came up in the National Crime Information Center as missing and suicidal. His car was parked at the side of the road, and as police located the man, he reportedly pointed a gun at officers and the man was shot by police and injured.
Officers involved: Jarrod Mackin, Matthew Cherba and Melanie Best were placed on administrative leave. Gall said they were on administrative duties for two months. On May 24, the 15th Judicial Solicitor’s Office cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.
A North Myrtle Beach police officer was shot while responding to a call of a domestic dispute. Officers were met by the mother and daughter upon arrival at the residence at Bellamy Road and Highway 17 Business, which is outside the North Myrtle Beach city limits. While the family was talking with police, the husband/father emerged from the home and fired on the officers, one striking an officer’s foot.
Three North Myrtle Beach officers returned fire, but the suspect — who reportedly suffers from PTSD — fled the scene. Earnail Michael Godbold, of North Myrtle Beach, was later captured and booked at the Horry County Detention Center. He was charged with domestic violence 1st degree, assault and battery 1st degree, three counts of attempted murder, possession of a firearm by prohibited person and possession of a weapon during a violent crime.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., Horry County police were dispatched to a suspicious vehicle at Myrtle Beach State Park. When they arrived, they saw a man sitting in the white vehicle’s driver’s seat with a rifle. The man sustained injuries after he was shot.
Officer involved: Officer Chandler J. Mullinax, who had been an officer in South Carolina since July 2012 and joined Horry County in March, was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Horry County records show he was back on the road Sept. 8.