Shootings between police and suspects are on the rise around South Carolina and the nation, and officers are in more danger than ever before, police say.
“You are always walking into the unknown,” said Columbia Police officer Alex Broder, 24.
Broder should know. Last May, in his first week as a police officer, he and a partner stopped a motorist who’d been driving suspiciously. It was 4 a.m. in Columbia’s upscale Shandon community. Broder got out of the driver’s side of his patrol car to approach the motorist.
“He opened the door, his left foot hit the ground, his right foot stayed in the vehicle, and he extended his arm, fired one shot and got back in the car – in just about one second,” Broder recalled last week. The bullet, a 7.62 rifle round, struck Broder square in the chest. He fell.
Fortunately, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and survived. The shooter, Blakely Jernigan, a troubled former Clemson student suspected of dealing drugs, sped off. Jernigan was shot to death later that morning by a city SWAT team when he charged them firing an AK-74.
Broder’s shooting illustrates the Wild West, trip-wire situations police around the state and nation now encounter almost daily.
Not all are as lucky as Broder.
In South Carolina last year, two officers – an Aiken police officer and a Laurens deputy – were shot to death. Last month, another Aiken officer was shot and killed. In all of 2011, there were 37 S.C. shooting incidents involving police or sheriff’s deputies. Ten of those officers were wounded, according to the State Law Enforcement Division.
A state law enforcement fraternity says no S.C. officers died in shooting incidents in 2010.
Nationwide, 173 law officers were killed in the line of duty last year, according to the National aw Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Of those, 68 died by gunfire, the major cause of police deaths in the line of duty. The year before, 59 police officers were shot to death.
“If someone will shoot at a police officer, they will shoot at anyone,” said Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, and a former SLED agent who in his law enforcement career helped send serial killer Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins to the electric chair.
Reacting to escalating violence against police officers, Tallon sponsored a “Blue Alert” bill that the Legislature unanimously passed last week.
The bill, awaiting Gov. Nikki Haley’s signature, provides for the rapid dissemination of information to law enforcement and the public to help catch a suspect whenever an officer is killed, seriously injured or abducted. Authorities would use the same existing traffic signage as the “Amber Alert” missing children public warning systems.
Police like Tallon’s bill.
“Back when I first started, 30-some years ago,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said, “we were working a lot of drug smuggling cases – huge quantities of marijuana – we very seldom if ever caught anybody with a weapon. But It seems like everybody’s carrying a gun today. I’m not talking about concealed weapons permit holders, I’m talking about the criminal element.”
Even police dogs are getting shot these days. In December, a Richland County tracking and drug detection K9 named Fargo was shot to death by a fleeing armed robbery suspect during a foot chase. Hundreds of law officers and 30 police dogs from around the state attended Fargo’s funeral.
“Our society is getting more and more dangerous every day,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, pointing out that guns aren’t the only danger. “In over 37 years in law enforcement, I’ve seen how bad guys are more prone to attack an officer and more prone to use a weapon. Everybody has guns, and bad guys shoot – there’s no fear of consequences.”
Lott believes mass entertainment media contribute to danger. Young people not only have a lack of respect for police, but their brains are saturated by video games in which action figures are constantly killing each other, he said. “It’s a culture of violence.”
Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts said drugs, a widespread lack of respect for law enforcement and a sharp decline in government services for mentally ill people create a more violent atmosphere than in past years.
“We have more people out who are mentally disturbed and ill who are left to be dealt with by the public and police officers,” Metts said.
Last year, Metts’ deputies were involved in two shooting incidents. In one, a SWAT team shot and killed a man who advanced on officers with a large knife. In another, last January, Deputy Joe Auckerman shot and killed a pit bull which was mauling a 10-year-old girl.
Guns aren’t police officers’ only worry. Last week, one of Lott’s deputies was attacked by a screwdriver-wielding man during a drug arrest. The lone officer wasn’t injured, but a bystander had to intervene and help the deputy fight off several of the suspect’s friends before more police arrived.
In Kershaw County, Sheriff Jim Matthews said his deputies didn’t have shooting incidents last year, but one officer fired a non-lethal, shotgun-propelled beanbag at a man who was advancing on him with a knife.
Matthews has increased the number of bullets the deputies fire in practice each year from 50 to 300.
“Shooting is a perishable skill,” Matthews said. “If you have to use deadly force, you want to make sure the suspect is the person you hit, and not somebody else.”
Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said his officers undergo numerous kinds of training to be ready for dangerous situations. Some citizens object to the measures.
“A consistent complaint we get is that, ‘When the officer stopped me, he had three or four cars show up with him, but I’m not the bad guy,’” Scott said.
“But until the officer stops him, how does he know?” Scott said. “When Officer Broder got out of his patrol car, he was shot not even four seconds after he got out.” Most violent encounters flare in a matter of seconds – without warning and at close range, Scott said.
If three or four officers converge on a traffic stop, “there’s less likelihood of gunfire or other serious confrontation,” he said.
Sometimes, however, an officer winds up alone and close to a suspect. Speed and skill matter.
“We never know what we’re walking into,” said Richland County Sheriff’s Master Deputy Sara Giron, 33, who shot first in a potentially deadly encounter when a suspect turned around during a chase through thick woods last March.
“He had a gun in his hand pointed directly at me,” said Giron, who drew her weapon and fired, wounding him in his knee. “He was still looking for the gun, even after I shot him.”
Giron, a former U.S. Army National Guard military police captain who served in Iraq, is a member of the county drug suppression team, an elite unit that does a high number of searches and seizures.
“A car stop is never just a car stop,” she said. “You always walk up to that car not knowing the person in that car may have vowed he is never going to jail again and he has just committed murder. We always stay on our toes.”
The man Giron shot, Antonio Davis Jr., 21, is in jail without bond, awaiting trial. He faces numerous charges, including Giron’s attempted murder. A SLED investigation found Giron’s shooting was legal and justified.
“I always wondered what would happen if that happened, and now I know,” Giron said.
Aiken police officer Master Cpl. Sandy Rogers, 49, is the most recent law enforcement victim. She was shot and killed Jan. 28 while responding to a call about a suspicious car. Police say Rogers’ assailant opened fire on her just hours after his girlfriend was gunned down at an apartment in Augusta. He has been charged in both deaths.
Both Giron and Broder credit their extensive training and preparation – which includes a bulletproof vest in Broder’s case – for saving their lives.
Keel said today’s police are highly aware of the dangers.
“They expect to encounter somebody with a gun. I tell officers every time I speak to a group how careful they need to be.”