Officer-involved shootings in South Carolina are on track to match or slightly surpass last year’s total, according to statistics compiled by the State Law Enforcement Division for the first half of the year.
That the numbers of such shootings have risen in recent years is not in doubt. But when it comes to breaking down the data by race, there seems little agreement on what the numbers mean and some suggest a comprehensive analysis involves digging much deeper into how officers interact with the African-American community that goes beyond the use of lethal force.
Through July 11, officers in the state have been involved in 26 shootings, including four in Greenville County, according to records provided to The Greenville News by SLED. That compares to 48 statewide for all of last year, 42 in 2014 and 37 in 2013, according to SLED.
Among the 10 who have died in this year’s shootings is Greenville police officer Allen Jacobs, the only officer killed in officer-involved shootings in South Carolina in 2016. Of the nine others who were killed, three were black and six were white, according to SLED data. Of the 10 who were injured, six were black, one was Latino and three were white.
Last year, 20 people were killed, including one officer. Of the 19 others killed, nine were black and 10 were white.
Just as the number killed or injured last year was almost evenly split between black and white, the racial breakdown of the officer and suspect in such shootings was roughly equal.
Shootings involving white officers and black suspects totaled eight so far this year, compared with seven involving white officers and white suspects. Similarly, 19 of the shootings last year involved white officers and black suspects, compared to 18 that involved white officers and white suspects, according to SLED data.
“If you look at the racial breakdown of folks in prison or the racial breakdown in police contacts day in and day out, those numbers would not be surprising,” said Sen. Larry Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “But I do think that is something that should be looked at.”
Blacks make up about 28 percent of South Carolina’s population, according to U.S. Census data, and account for about 62 percent of the state’s inmates, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, an African-American lawyer from Hartsville who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee and chaired the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission, said he thinks the numbers on race don’t tell the whole story.
“The numbers being about the same (between white and black) doesn’t tell the story for me. I think you have to look at the occurrences, the stops, the number of patrols in the community. I don’t think you can tie it directly to the population,” he said.
“What’s more important is the facts – if it’s justifiable, if there is a component not necessarily known to the public, which is if there is a quick reaction by an officer, a lack of training by an officer or a person was unwilling to cooperate and placed the officer in harm’s way,” Malloy said.
According to the SLED, the circumstances for the shootings range from domestic disputes to break-ins to reports of a suspicious or armed person to armed robberies.
According to a database of fatal police shootings maintained by The Washington Post, in 16 of last year’s 19 officer-involved shootings in South Carolina in which the suspect died, the suspect had some type of weapon and the circumstances were described as an “attack in progress.”
Rep. Mike Pitts, a Laurens Republican, worked for 28 years in law enforcement, including 10 years with the Greenville Police Department.
“If you look at all the stats, more white people get shot by police than black people do. The rate of violent crime among blacks is much higher than it is among whites. So I think police officers show a great deal of restraint,” he said.
“Personally, and I know people will take this as a racial statement, but based upon national statistics, it surprises me a little bit that the number of white people shot (by police) was as high as it was. That’s not a racial statement, that’s just based on national statistics.”
Ryan Alphin, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officer’s Association, said the ratio is skewed by the fact that there are many more white law enforcement officers in the state and in the nation, and he said that is because agencies do not receive many applications from African-Americans.
“Chief (David) Brown in Dallas said, ‘Put in an application, we’ll put you in your community,’” Alphin said. “We can all try and solve this together but you have to have those people apply.”
He said nationally, the narrative is that African-Americans are killed more by police than white people but that is not true.
“Maybe if you break it down by percentage of the population but I think you have to break it down further than that to the population of the communities where the suspects are killed by police,” he said. “If you look at it nationally, two to one, whites are killed more than African-Americans. So I’m not sure the data bears out what the national narrative is.”
Martin noted that while the number of officer-involved shootings is significant but represent a small fraction of what he said are tens of thousands of contacts between law enforcement and the public each year, as well as the thousands of arrest situations.
“Still, it points to the need to focus on training and the appropriate protocols to follow to minimize the prospect for gunfire, either by the police or by a suspect,” he said.
Alphin said the higher numbers in recent years of officer-involved shootings in the state are reflective of a rise in violent crime nationwide.
“Police officers feel like they are under attack,” he said. “The numbers may not bear it out but when you work with police officers every day, that’s how they feel. They feel like they are under attack by the public. They second-guess themselves. They are not comfortable making every decision that they make and that creates a dangerous circumstance.”
Rep. Chandra Dillard, a black Democrat from Greenville, said the racial breakdown of officer-involved shootings is closer than she had imagined.
“It paints a different picture, so to speak, that, yes officers are involved in shootings of suspects,” she said. “But it doesn’t point to one group being more vulnerable than another when it comes to that kind of activity.”
She said the state should be more transparent with the facts, which could alter the public dialogue to one of “how do we avoid officer-involved shootings.”
Officer-involved shootings nationwide have come under scrutiny as more bystanders have recorded the confrontations with their cell phone cameras, including fatal shootings earlier this month of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Those shootings have caused protests nationwide, including marches in Greenville and Columbia, and may have sparked a black man in Dallas to shoot at police, killing five officers and wounding nine before he was killed by police explosives. Three officers were killed in an ambush by a gunman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a week ago.
Last year’s incidents in South Carolina included the videotaped fatal shooting of a fleeing black man by a white North Charleston police officer, who was subsequently fired and charged with murder, and the fatal shooting of a white Seneca teen, Zachary Hammond, who was attempting to drive away from a police officer.
That shooting was captured on the officer’s dashboard camera. A solicitor declined to press charges against the officer.
The State Prosecution Coordination Commission was scheduled to meet late this month to develop a task force to study officer-involved shootings and other incidents between law enforcement and the public, said Duffie Stone of Beaufort, chairman of the commission and solicitor for the 14th Circuit.
“There are a number of solicitors who want to develop and want to discuss best practices in dealing with these kind of cases,” he said “And not just the fatalities, but any officer-involved case.”
SLED reviews all officer-involved shootings in the state except for Richland County, whose sheriff believes his agency is capable of investigating its own officers. A bill to require all office-involved shootings be reviewed by SLED failed to pass the Legislature this year.
SLED tracks whether the officers have been cleared by its review but most of those spaces are blank on the data forms because the cases are still open or the employee tracking that information hasn’t had the chance to input the data yet, said Thom Berry, a SLED spokesman.
Of the 12 cases in 2015 for which SLED marked a result, all but two are designated as cleared. The North Charleston case was marked as not cleared, while the Hammond case was marked as uncertain because Berry said the U.S. Department of Justice may be looking at it.
“Are there times when there is going to be a bad situation, a bad shoot?” Pitts asked. “Absolutely. But by and large, officers are doing the right thing.”
He said after four Los Angeles police officers were videotaped beating Rodney King in 1991, police departments nationwide changed their approach to use of force.
“There was so much pressure from the top and so much PC (political correctness) from the top, that officers got hurt not raising their level of force fast enough,” he said. “You’re taught at the (Criminal Justice) Academy to escalate your force one step above your opponent. If he comes at you with a fist, you would use, at that time, your nightstick. Now they have Tasers and other things. If he has a gun, you have to stop him before he hurts you.”
“I think we’ve reached a situation where police officers are under so much pressure, that they are scared and a scared man will hurt you quicker than a confident man,” he said.
Alphin said the public should resist the urge to condemn a police officer based on a video clip.
“We can all look at that and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look very good, or there may be an issue,’” he said. “But what we can’t do is make immediate decisions based on a small piece of evidence, and then additional evidence comes out that may or may not exonerate an officer. For two weeks this was on CNN or WIS. You can’t take that back.”