A Bluffton police officer's actions have been called into question after video footage of an afternoon traffic stop in August shows the officer breaking the window of a Beaufort woman's car when she expressed fear at his demeanor and confusion over why she had been pulled over.
After shattering the window, which caused shards of glass to fall on Claraleanna Lockett, Officer Baker Odom of the Bluffton Police Department forcibly removed her from the car and arrested her.
The incident happened within 20 seconds of Odom approaching Lockett's car.
Her 2-year-old son was in the backseat.
Experts told The Island Packet that the situation could have been avoided had Odom sought to defuse the situation by speaking with Lockett and attempting to reason with her before using force to get her out of the vehicle.
The Bluffton Police Department, which lists its official mission as "community policing" and says it prides itself on positive interactions with residents, told a Savannah television station earlier this week that it stands by Odom's actions.
The department's interim chief Scott Chandler said Thursday that Odom's actions were investigated after the incident and the department found no wrongdoing.
"Based on his approach to the vehicle, he smelled marijuana and saw a small child in the backseat," Chandler said. "So basically, he was trying to keep Ms. Lockett from driving away and keep the child safe and the community safe."
The incident occurred around 2:50 p.m. Aug. 5 when Lockett was heading home to Beaufort from Bluffton.
Lockett said she was smoking a cigarette outside her stepbrother's home on Brendan Lane when she saw a Bluffton police officer in a marked car drive by, turn around, drive by again and then take a picture of her.
Lockett took a photo of the officer as the officer was taking a photo of her.
Chandler said Thursday that he did not have knowledge of Lockett's claim that she had been photographed by a Bluffton officer prior to the traffic stop.
"That's the first time I'm hearing it," he said. "(Lockett) has never mentioned that or shown us pictures."
Chandler said that taking photos of someone before a traffic stop is not a tactic Bluffton police officers use.
Almost immediately after Lockett drove away from her stepbrother's home, she said, she was followed by a different Bluffton police car, one driven by Odom.
Lockett parked on Pin Oak Street to let him pass her because she suspected she was being followed by him and felt like there was no reason for it.
After Lockett resumed driving, Odom made a U-turn and began to closely follow her again. Odom pulled up behind Lockett's car as she waited to turn at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and Goethe Road.
He pulled her over almost immediately after she turned.
"He said I crossed the line on the turn," Lockett said Wednesday. "I don't feel like I did, but they have a variety of reasons why they can pull you over."
Lockett said she was frightened by Odom. As he approached the car, she asked him why he had been following her.
Within seconds, the situation escalated.
According to the dashboard camera footage, Odom asked Lockett for her license and registration as he was approaching the car and told her to roll her window all the way down. Lockett refused. In body-camera footage, which aired on WJCL, Lockett appears to cower from Odom at one point.
"May I ask why I am being followed?," she said on the video.
"You're being pulled over because you almost hit that car," Odom replied.
She asked him again why he had been following her.
"He never even answered the question," she said Wednesday.
In the video, Lockett appears as though she's trying to roll up her window as Odom said loudly, "You don't want to do that, ma'am."
Odom called for backup and then shattered the window. He immediately began to pull Lockett out of the car as her toddler screamed from the backseat.
In his incident report, Odom said that Lockett had gained his attention when she parked to let him pass her.
"I found this behavior suspicious," he wrote.
After making a U-turn, Odom said, he drove up behind Lockett, when she was stopped at the intersection. She switched her turn signal from left to right when she saw that he had turned on his left turn signal, he said.
Odom wrote that he pulled over Lockett because she made "a wide right and crossed over the center line, nearly colliding with a northbound vehicle."
Odom wrote that, before he broke the window, he had smelled marijuana coming from inside Lockett's car. He said the window shattered when he "attempted to prevent (it) from rolling up by pushing down on it."
At the scene, Odom did not tell Lockett that he smelled marijuana nor did he ask her about it prior to breaking her window, according to the dashboard camera footage.
Odom wrote that he initially tried to prevent the window from rolling up "due to Lockett's erratic driving to this point, her initial willingness to have her window down and then suddenly attempting to cut off contact, having probable cause to search the vehicle and Lockett, and concern for the safety of the child if it became necessary to forcefully enter the vehicle once the window was secured in the up position."
When Odom called for backup, Lockett began to roll up the window again, the report said. When the window reached three quarters of the way to being completely closed, Odom wrote, he "shattered" the window by "pulling it outward."
He then opened the door, grabbed Lockett's left hand and ordered her from the vehicle, the report said.
She refused and wrapped her right arm onto the wheel. Odom wrote that he attempted to pull her out of the car, but wasn't able to do so until another officer arrived.
Lockett was charged with reckless driving, resisting arrest and possession of marijuana after Odom searched her vehicle and found less than half a gram of marijuana, which is about the size of a marble, in small plastic black bottle inside a diaper bag on the front passenger floorboard.
Lockett spent the night in the Beaufort County Detention Center. She said it was the first time she had been separated from her son overnight.
"I didn't touch (Odom) at all," Lockett said. "I wasn't resisting. I felt he came to my car in an unprofessional manner. Then he broke my window and was yelling at me. I didn't feel safe."
In an interview with WJCL, interim police chief Chandler said "absolutely" when asked if Odom had handled the situation correctly.
The manner of Lockett's arrest did not appear to follow best practices for a law enforcement officer, according to Susan Dunn, legal director of the South Carolina American Civil Liberties Union.
"What concerns us most is how quickly the situation escalated," Dunn said Wednesday.
Dunn watched the dashboard camera footage at The Island Packet's request.
"It would be reasonable for a young woman to feel like she should not get out by herself, especially with her child in the car," Dunn said. " ... It's hard to see here how (Odom's) attitude did anything but make a situation more dangerous.
"Breaking windows doesn't seem like a good plan."
Though the ACLU is not representing Lockett, Dunn said it appeared Lockett called 911 to make sure she had a witness to what was happening.
"She was stopped," Dunn said. "She had the window up. It seems to me that the better part of wisdom here would be to wait for someone else. There didn't seem to be any immediate danger."
Chandler defined the department's community policing effort as volunteering and forming partnerships in the community. Officers do so, he said, through their daily interactions with residents and by participating in neighborhood events, such as barbecues.
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who has seen the video, said traffic stops that result in an immediate escalation of tension — like the one involving Odom — can harm a law enforcement agency's relationship with the community it serves.
"I give (the Bluffton Police Department) a lot of credit for their community engagement efforts, but it brings to mind the saying 'Trust is collected in drops, but lost in buckets,'" he said.
Stoughton said there is no universally accepted best practice when it comes to traffic stops because each police department is different, however, he called the Aug. 5 stop "out of line."
"(Things) escalated far faster than I think ... they should have," Stoughton said. "One of the single most important tactical concepts is time. The more time officers have to analyze a situation, the better they are able to take in information and process that information."
Stoughton said the amount of time between Odom getting out of his patrol vehicle and smashing the window — about 20 seconds — was a factor in how the situation proceeded.
"Police officers don't always have the luxury of time, but I didn't see anything in this traffic stop that would indicate that's what was happening here," he said. "The driver didn't try to leave. She just rolled her window up."
Stoughton suggested that the situation might have ended differently had Odom attempted to speak to Lockett through the window as he waited for backup to arrive. After backup arrived, if the officers could not get her to exit the vehicle after 15 to 30 minutes, a use of force might have been necessary, he said.
"There's also such a thing as officer-created jeopardy," Stoughton said. "That's when officers put themselves into danger unnecessarily."
When Odom leaned into Lockett's car in an attempt to get her out, Stoughton said Odom was putting his life at risk.
"You don't ever want to reach into a car, particularly one that's still turned on, because if they start driving off, you have now put yourself in a situation that might require the use of deadly force."
In his report, Odom wrote that Lockett's vehicle appeared to be in park, so in order to prevent an attempt to flee, he reached into the vehicle and removed the keys from the ignition.
Lockett said she wants the charges dropped and for her window to be paid for by the police department.
Chandler said if Lockett asks the department to reimburse her for the window, he "believes" they would do so.
Since her arrest, Lockett said she has been turned down for six job opportunities because of the charges pending against her, and that her son doesn't sleep at night.
"I won't even go to Bluffton," she said. "I don't trust any of their cops. They are people who are supposed to keep me safe. I don't trust any of them."
She said she does not plan to sue the department.
"It's all of them against me, and there's nothing I can do."