Crime & Courts

Officers, community leaders struggle to find harmony as tensions run high

Levar Jones reaches into his vehicle to grab the identification ex-Highway Patrol trooper Sean Groubert requested on Sept 4, 2014. Grouber fired at Jones.
Levar Jones reaches into his vehicle to grab the identification ex-Highway Patrol trooper Sean Groubert requested on Sept 4, 2014. Grouber fired at Jones. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

South Carolina’s political leaders are struggling to find a way to defuse worry among the state’s minority communities in the wake of the killings of two civilians by law enforcement officers and the massacre of Dallas policemen.

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford and Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said Monday there is no one answer for how motorists can have a safer interaction with police during traffic stops.

“Most African-Americans, when an officer pulls up behind them, they get tense,” Neal said. “I get tense. We’ve had some experiences as individuals that collectively have not been pleasant.”

Those experiences, coupled with the frequency of officer-involved shootings with African-Americans, have congregations and advocates wondering how can they teach young black people to protect themselves, Neal said.

“You need to have some message that helps these young folks understand that what they do can cost them their lives,” he said. “You just do what you can to keep it from escalating to a point where you get killed.”

That includes complying with the officer as much as possible, even when the driver disagrees with the reasoning behind the stop, said Rutherford, D-Richland, a former prosecutor.

“We have to demand of our society that we treat police officers with respect,” Rutherford said. “On the roadside is not the time to argue with the police officer.”

S.C. Highway Patrol Sgt. Bob Beres echoed Rutherford.

“If you don’t agree with the officer’s decision or action, you have to wait until the court date to make your point,” Beres said. “If you feel like you’ve been mistreated, then you have to wait and report it to the supervisor.”

Most troopers involved in traffic enforcement have dash cameras to capture the encounters. Many police agencies across the state are equipping their officers with body cameras.

But most importantly, motorists should always remain in their vehicle when pulled over, said Florence McCants, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, which trains all police officers in the state.

Drivers should also keep their hands on the steering wheel, tell an officer if they have a concealed weapons permit and explain where the firearm is if it’s in the car, McCants said.

SLED Chief Mark Keel said Monday he stood by comments he made more than a year ago about officer-involved shootings. “As long as individuals continue to not follow the instructions of law enforcement ... there’s going to continue to be these confrontations. The public has to understand to be more compliant.”

But Neal said there have been instances where officers have been irrationally afraid. He pointed to a 2014 incident in which a then-Highway Patrol trooper shot a Columbia motorist who had reached into his Dodge Durango to grab his wallet to provide the identification the trooper had requested.

Neal also pointed to a more recent incident: the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota on July 6. In that case, Castile’s fiancée insisted in a live stream she captured seconds after the shooting that Castile had complied with the officer and had told him he was a concealed weapons permit holder.

“He was doing what he was asked to: produce his driver’s license,” Neal said. “We have to talk about how we respond when these officers are full of irrational fear.”

What to do when you’re pulled over

The state Highway Patrol offers this advice as to what to do when a law enforcement officers pulls a motorist.

▪  Pull over to a well-lighted location as fast, but as safely as possible.

▪  If it’s dark, turn on the lights inside your vehicle.

▪  Keep your hands on the steering wheel and roll down the window.

▪  The officer should tell you the reason for the stop. If not, ask politely.

▪  Indicate to the officer where your documentation is kept before reaching for it.

▪  If you’re a concealed weapons permit holder, inform the officer and share your firearm’s location.

▪  Refrain from making any sudden movements, and communicate what you’re doing.