EXCLUSIVE: SC police shot at 43 suspects in 2014, killing 18 of them

Police officers in South Carolina fired at 43 suspects last year, killing 18.

Twenty suspects were injured.

One officer lost his life.

And one officer is being prosecuted for misuse of force.

Interactive database of 2014 officer-involved-shootings in SC at bottom of this story

White officers shot more white suspects than black ones by a slim margin of one, according to State Law Enforcement Division records collected from agencies across South Carolina and reviewed by The State newspaper. Overall, more black suspects were shot than white by officers of any race, but again by a slim margin.

The newspaper examined the records involving police shooting incidents for 2014 in the wake of the September shooting of an unarmed black motorist stopped by a S.C. Highway Patrol trooper for a seat belt violation near Columbia. The shooting of Levar Jones – and the prosecution of former trooper Sean Groubert – came as a heated national debate was erupting about use of force by police, especially against African-American men.

SLED, South Carolina’s principal criminal investigative agency, conducts almost all inquiries when police fire in the line of duty. Apart from some scattered incidents, SLED’s records are comprehensive. But they are not easily reviewed. Details about the incidents must be culled from thousands of pages of investigative material collected and reviewed by the agency.

The shooting incidents in 2014 stemmed mostly from suspects who shot at or threatened officers who were responding to calls for help, making traffic stops, conducting investigations or serving warrants, according to records that SLED compiled.

Other findings from the 2014 records:

•  Black officers shot four African-American and three white suspects. Black officers comprise 22 percent of Palmetto State’s police forces.

•  Suspects stood a 50-50 chance of surviving violent clashes with police.

•  Nine officers were injured and one, a veteran Charleston County deputy, was killed.

•  Firearms were suspects’ weapon of choice in 16 cases. Suspects used vehicles to try to harm police in 13 instances.

•  Women were involved about 12 percent of the time.

•  The confrontations occurred in almost half of the state’s counties.

•  The average age of suspects is 34, with the oldest 70 and the youngest 18. The most common suspect, however, was in his or her 20s.

Suspects also were holding knives and even a walking cane during their clashes with police.

SLED investigative records of completed cases – some of which are 8 to 12 inches thick with detailed accounts of the shootings, statements from witnesses and police, analyses of evidence in SLED’s crime lab and other documentation – show that white officers shot or shot at white suspects on 18 occasions last year. White officers fired at African-American suspect in 17 cases. In two of the cases more than one suspect was injured.

In recent months, conversations across the nation about race in police confrontations sometimes turned into screaming matches and public protests. Much of the debate was stoked by the fatal shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson, Mo., policeman, which less than a month before Groubert shot Jones.

National data about officer-involved shootings, especially fatal ones, are incomplete and often unreliable. The Wall Street Journal found in December, for example, that 550 police killings were missing from its analysis of six years of records from 105 of the nation’s largest police agencies. In dozens of cases, fatalities were not attributed to the correct police agency, the newspaper reported.

Todd Rutherford, an African-American state legislator from Columbia and lawyer who has represented suspects shot by police, said SLED’s figures show only part of the real picture.

“Just looking at the numbers doesn’t tell you the details – and the devil is in the details in all of these cases,” Rutherford said, referring to an officer’s perception of a real threat and how quickly he or she pulls a trigger.

Rutherford, a Richland County Democrat, S.C. House minority leader and a former prosecutor, said he’s not surprised by the racial breakdown. A clearer picture would emerge by analyzing the racial demographics in each county and the circumstances of each shooting, he said.

Conversely, Mike Lanier, deputy director of the state’s police academy, said that evaluating police conduct in these situations is tricky.

“How many of these shootings were good or bad, I don’t know,” Lanier said.” Unless I’m standing there in his shoes, seeing what he’s seeing and feeling what he’s feeling, I’m not going to judge.

“It’s not about keeping score,” said Lanier, a former Columbia policeman who was part of two officer-involved shootings. “Nobody wins or loses. What it comes down to is it’s a crying shame. The color doesn’t matter. It’s a person.”

A closer look

Altogether, 22 black suspects were shot in 2014 by state and local police regardless of the race of officers, compared with 20 white suspects, according to SLED records examined by The State.

One suspect was a Native American on probation who identified himself as a member of the Lumbee tribe.

A white state probation officer on Jan. 27, 2014, shot and killed the Native American, who was was schizophrenic and had attacked his physician and the officer at a Chesterfield mental health clinic.

One of the 43 violent encounters involved a Latino York city police officer who shot a black suspect.

Two cases, respectively, involved Charlotte police and a federal drug agent. Charlotte officers and York County deputies went on Jan. 7, 2014, to serve a warrant at a Fort Mill home and were ambushed, according to a sheriff’s spokesman.

A drug suspect in Orangeburg County shot a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent on Oct. 20, 2014, during a raid as the suspect ran naked from a house after he was awakened when police officers ringed his home.

SLED agents were involved in two shootouts.

Richland and Greenville counties, two of the state’s most populous, each had five cases of officer-involved shootings, the records show.

Charleston and York each had four. Anderson rounds out the Top 5 with three confrontations that resulted in shootings. Lexington and Kershaw counties in the Midlands each had one. Though listed by counties, all the figures include municipal police departments in each of the jurisdictions.

Circumstances of the shootings

A sampling of cases from 2014 demonstrate the range of situations officers can find themselves in, the intensity of such confrontations, the ways in which police respond and the powerful impact of split-second decisions.

•  On Sept. 22, 18-year-old Adrian Ryans was shot and wounded by Lexington deputy Scott Zylstra when Ryans pulled a “Black Ops” airsoft gun from his waistband after the white deputy caught Ryans, who is black, diving from a bedroom window of a home where a burglary had been reported. The teenager survived.

•  On Feb. 25, a hobbled, 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, Bobby Canipe of Lincolnton, N.C., was driving through the York County town of Clover on his way home from a NASCAR race in Florida. Deputy Terrence Knox, in a nighttime traffic stop, pulled over Canipe’s F-150 pickup for having an expired tag.

Canipe, who is hard of hearing and diabetic, did not stay in his truck as Knox tried to get his attention. Instead, the white driver got out and reached into the truck bed to get his cane, which had a handle the deputy mistook for the pistol grip of a shotgun.

Knox fired six shots, one barely missing Canipe’s girlfriend in the passenger’s seat. The second struck the motorist in the chest. The officer’s car camera captured the incident, including Knox, an African-American, sobbing and asking God for forgiveness as he calls for help.

Canipe remained calm and told Knox he was just doing his job. He survived.

•  On March 4, Duncan police officer Terry Lane shot and killed Rebecca Lynne Oliver as she tried to drive away in Lane’s police cruiser.

Lane, who is African-American, and another officer went to a house after a complaint involving a man and woman asking to borrow the homeowners’ truck. The man with Oliver, who is white, ran. Oliver jumped into the police cruiser and twice backed up as the officer tried to reach inside to turn off the ignition.

Lane fired two separate times, striking Oliver four times. One bullet hit her left arm; three penetrated her torso.

Circumstances of pulling a trigger

A sampling from files of completed SLED investigations of officer-involved shootings in 2014 demonstrate a range of tense situations that result in suspects and or officers firing.

•  On Jan. 27, probation officer John Funderburk escorted John Freeman, 45, to the Tri-County Mental Health Center in Chesterfield for an appointment with Freeman’s doctor. Funderburk sat outside the patient office as the physician discussed possible changes in medications for treating the schizophrenic Freeman.

Freeman, who had said he was a Lumbee Indian, became agitated when the 33-year-old doctor told him he might have to go to a hospital. Freeman punched the physician, knocking him to the floor. Funderburk intervened, and he and Freeman, both white, began to fight as the doctor left the room, locked it and alerted the rest of the staff.

The fight spilled into a hallway, where Funderburk fired three shots, killing Freeman, who did not have a gun.

•  On Jan. 31, Kingstree police officer Clemson Wright shot Alton Reaves after Reaves, a 31-year-old black man, pointed a gun at the officer more than once and managed to evade a Taser shot. Wright, called to scene of a man with a weapon, fired several rounds when Reaves would not put down his gun. Reaves, who did not fire directly at Wright, also shouted, “You are going to have to kill me.” The officer, also African-American, chased Reaves on foot after Reaves ran from a dispute he had with another man over a gambling debt in the Mexico area of downtown Kingstree.

Reaves died.

•  On April 24, Lancaster County deputy Glenn Reams shot and killed Ingrid Mayer, 55, as she tried to run over him in her gray Nissan at a house on Grace Avenue. Officers were called for a suspected driving under the influence complaint. Mayer backed the Nissan into one deputy’s cruiser before she drove at Reams as gravel flew from the driveway. He jumped out of the way and yelled to Mayer to stop the car. Reams, who is white, fired two shots. Mayer, also white, was struck twice, and the car crashed. She died at the scene.

•  On Sept. 4 during afternoon rush hour along busy Broad River Road in Columbia, Highway Patrol trooper Sean Groubert pulled over motorist Levar Jones for driving without a seat belt. Jones got out of his vehicle. He said he had unbuckled the belt as he pulled into a gas station. Groubert, who is white, asked Jones, a 35-year-old black man, to get his driver’s license.

As Jones turned to reach into his car, Groubert fired several shots at close range, saying later he thought Jones was reaching for a gun.

Jones survived, and Groubert has lost his job and been charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

•  On Sept. 28, former Chapin High School teacher Michael Oswald shoots and kills Charleston County deputy Joe Matuskovic after deputies are called to Oswald’s apartment Lowcountry complex because Oswald is causing a ruckus with neighbors.

During the confrontation, officers opened Oswald’s door and asked him to come out. Oswald fired with an assault-type rifle, ripping through the door and wall. Matuskovic, a veteran of 17 years in law enforcement, was struck several times. A fellow officer was shot in the right leg.

Deputies opened fire, striking Oswald twice. The Latin and mythology teacher during the 2002 and 2003 school years in Chapin died on the scene, as did Matuskovic.

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