Investigation details shootings by South Carolina officers

Crime

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — An investigation into South Carolina police shooting records found that Greenville County deputies have pulled the trigger more than any other agency in the state.

At least 31 times in 10 years, Greenville County Sheriff’s Office deputies fired their weapons at a person. Someone died in 19 of those shootings. In each case, authorities determined the shootings were justified, and no deputies were disciplined.

Yet the fallout from each of the shootings lingers. Someone dies or is seriously injured; families grasp for explanations; communities become hesitant to interact with the people sworn to protect them; and officers’ careers — and sometimes their mental state — are changed after a pressure-filled, split-second decision.

The Greenville News analyzed 10 years of statewide shooting data, reviewed more than two dozen investigative case files, filed more than 40 Freedom of Information Act requests and conducted dozens of interviews. The investigation found that one out of every eight fatal shootings by law enforcement officers in South Carolina involves a Greenville County deputy.

Other findings were striking:

— Between 2009 and 2018, there were at least 409 shootings by officers in SC – 145 of the shootings were fatal.

— Officers often fail to use their body cameras, leaving little visual evidence to review.

— Many officers wait days or even weeks before speaking with their own internal affairs officers and state investigators to give an account of what happened.

— Some shootings are never reported to state authorities and only investigated internally, despite policy that says every officer-involved shooting will be reviewed by the State Law Enforcement Division.

— African Americans are shot by officers at a disproportionately higher rate than whites, both in Greenville County and across South Carolina.

— Some deputies have been involved in multiple shootings, and some tied to shootings also have backgrounds of misconduct complaints or disciplinary cases.

Tiffany Copeland, of Greenville, is one of many people facing the aftermath of a deadly shooting by an officer. Her life has been desolate after deputies shot and killed her fiancé, Jermaine Massey.

On a dreary day in March 2018, Massey, the father of Copeland’s children, called deputies to his home during a mental breakdown. The incident ended with four deputies firing 11 shots that killed Massey in the backyard of his and Copeland’s home.

Deputies shouted “drop the knife” 52 times in five minutes and 50 seconds before shots were fired. None of the deputies had what’s considered to be the best mental health training available, records showed.

“He was a dad. He was my future husband. He was a son, a brother,” she said. “And they took that in the blink of an eye, within 20 minutes. And yet all of them went home to their families.”

When these shootings occur, the investigation found that oversight is inconsistent. Some shootings are never reported to the state law enforcement agency that usually investigates whether laws were broken by officers. The News identified seven additional shootings between 2009 and 2018 that were never reported to SLED. Those shootings resulted in no one being struck by gunfire, but other cases under the same circumstances were referred to SLED both locally and across the state. On average, one out of every five shootings by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office were never reported to SLED in a 10-year span.

Only nine, or roughly one-third, of 28 Greenville County deputies involved in shootings in 2017 had working body cameras that captured shooting incidents.

A review of case files from the next five largest agencies in South Carolina that had shooting cases between 2017 and 2018 revealed additional neglect in body camera use.

Seven officers from those top agencies were found to have not used their body cameras during a shooting. For one out of every three to four shootings on average, there was at least one officer not recording.

No officer was disciplined or reprimanded for failing to use their taxpayer-funded body cameras. Some legislators have proposed implementing penalties for not using them.

Even when law enforcement agencies find no wrongdoing by officers, the shootings may end up in civil court. The litigation costs taxpayers because authorities are sometimes forced to pay thousands of dollars in settlements and legal fees. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office was the subject of at least 10 shooting-related civil lawsuits since 2010, according to court records. Those suits have resulted in nearly $600,000 in payouts and fees.

“We’re trained to use what force is necessary to perfect an arrest,” said Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown. “My thought is always and will be, if you point a gun at one of my deputies, we’re going to shoot you.”

Some civil rights advocates have asked elected officials to create citizen review boards to examine interactions between police and the community, and some have also called on South Carolina legislators to change body camera laws to make footage public.

Law enforcement agencies say officer-involved shootings occur because of increases in violent crime in the community – but statistics don’t support that.

Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina, has compiled FBI data on killings and assaults of law enforcement officers and compared the information against national data on violence. His findings show overall violence in the U.S. has dropped, including toward officers. His research dispels what some law enforcement leaders have said about society being more aggressive, both as a whole and toward cops.

“It is still a dangerous profession. We shouldn’t overlook that. But we also should not exaggerate the dangers by saying and by training officers that this is the most dangerous time to be an officer,” Stoughton said. “That’s simply not true.”

Rather than explaining shooting trends with a narrative that places fault on a violent society, accountability advocates say agencies should analyze their shooting incidents even if officers are cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

“The police have a license to kill,” said Michelle Dalton, the sister of Wesley Swilling, who died in a police shooting in Greenville in 2013. “They are the judge, jury and executioner. They make mistakes. You cannot say they are never at fault for what they’re doing.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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