State

What turns a domestic call into a police shootout?

To combat domestic violence, SC must do better on guns, chief says

SC is no longer first in the nation for domestic violence homicides, but still ranks fifth.
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SC is no longer first in the nation for domestic violence homicides, but still ranks fifth.

The shootout near Hardeeville Thursday night – which left two police officers injured and a suspect dead – highlights the dangers faced by officers responding to domestic violence incidents, law enforcement officials and others say.

Hardeeville Police Department Sgt. Kelvin Grant and Jasper County Deputy Justin Smith were shot by 26-year-old Jose Trejo, who earlier in the evening had fired a gun near his mother’s head at their Sanders Road home, authorities said.

“What makes (domestic violence calls) so dangerous is the high-running emotions,” said Jasper County Sheriff Chris Malphrus when contacted Friday.

Hardeeville Police Chief Sam Woodward said he responded to dozens of domestic violence calls when working in the 1980s as a deputy with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office.

He recalled one particularly harrowing incident.

“When I got to the scene, (a suspect) picked up a brick and threw it through the window” of the home he was responding to, he said.

“I immediately put hands on him” in and effort to subdue and handcuff the man, Woodward said. “Then his wife jumps on my back, and that’s how things escalate really quickly.”

The wife, who initially called police to report the domestic violence incident, “is telling me not to hurt” her husband, Woodward recalled, adding that meanwhile, “he’s grabbing my hair and twisting my head around, so I’m looking up at the sky.”

“Ultimately, we ended up arresting him,” Woodward said. “But that goes to show you how quickly things can change when you’re out on a domestic call.”

Bluffton Police Department Maj. Joseph Manning had a similar experience during his tenure as a deputy in Pinellas County, Fla.

“Domestics are so unpredictable,” he said. “I’ve had instances where I’ve arrested the batterer only to be attacked by the victim.”

Domestic violence calls are not only volatile and potentially dangerous, but they’re also fairly common.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office responded to nearly 9,400 such calls over the past two years, department records show. That places domestic violence within the top 10 of all call types received by the department.

Ryan Alphin, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers' Association, said because of the added risk posed by “the heated state” of domestic violence calls, many agencies in the state have adopted policies to ensure responding officers have backup.

Said Manning, “If it’s an in-progress domestic call, we will always send at least one additional unit.”

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is all too familiar with the dangers of domestic violence calls.

In 2002, deputies Lance Cpl. Dana Tate and Cpl. Dyke “A.J.” Coursen responded to a report of a 19-year-old woman in Burton being held against her will by her baby’s father.

Upon arriving on the scene, the deputies were shot and killed by Tyree Roberts.

In 2003, Roberts was convicted of murdering both officers and sentenced to death. He is the only Beaufort County inmate on Death Row. The case remains in the appeals process.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said after that incident, the department launched a new set of policies aimed at reducing the danger of domestic violence calls.

“Any time we get a domestic violence call, our dispatcher gets all the information they can, and we start running checks on the address and the people involved,” he said. “We gather all the intel we can while the officer is en route, so they are prepared as possible before they get to the scene.”

Malphrus said Trejo had a lengthy criminal history, including domestic violence charges.

Shauw Chin Capps, president of the local domestic violence victim-advocacy group Hopeful Horizons, said the fact that so many high-risk domestic violence calls involve repeat offenders shows the need for strong prosecution in family abuse cases.

Thursday’s shooting “speaks to the larger issue of taking domestic violence seriously, and getting people who commit domestic violence off the street,” she said. “They don’t just beat up their girlfriends. They can wind up killing other people.”

“The impact ripples out, and (the Trejo situation) was an example of that,” she said.

Projects reporter Erin Heffernan contributed to this story.

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