Larry Hardy / The Times and Democrat / AP

Bucking the trend: In South Carolina, white police on docket over killings

A few indictments show nationally uneven efforts to prosecute officers for wrongfully shooting unarmed black men

Bernard Bailey was climbing into the cab of his truck in front of a police station. Levar Jones was reaching for his wallet after being pulled over for not wearing a seat belt. Earnest Satterwhite Sr. had just been stopped after taking off during a DUI traffic stop. All three unarmed black men were shot by white police officers in South Carolina.

And defying expectations fostered by limited data and public perception, the state has brought charges against the three officers, all within the last four months.

Nationally, little is known about how often police officers use excessive force or what kind of judicial consequences they face for those actions, because of a lack of reporting regulations. According to a recent Bowling Green State University study, there were almost 7,000 arrest of nonfederal sworn law enforcement officers from 2005 to 2011, about 10 percent of which involved the officers’ having allegedly “pulled, pointed, held or fired a gun and/or threatened someone with a gun.” At least 70 percent of the firearm misuse occurred while on duty, it found. Missing, however, is conviction data.

South Carolina’s recent indictments are more than Cleveland residents expect will happen in their city. In a recent report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found the Cleveland Police Department reckless, poorly trained in firearm use and showing patterns of excessive, unnecessary force. The report emerged little over a week after a 12-year-old African-American boy holding a pellet gun was shot and killed late last month by a white officer in a city park.

Recent police shooting deaths of unarmed black men around the country have prompted Amnesty International USA to call for a DOJ review of police use of force and to commit to publishing national data on such incidents. “Communities, particularly those of color, have a right to expect to be protected by police and should not have to live in fear of them,” said Steven Hawkins, the organization’s executive director.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has called for an end of U.S. police practices that disproportionately target blacks.

Bernard Bailey, who was shot and killed by Combs.
Bailey family / Reuters

“Bernard Bailey was an unarmed African-American male who was shot three times by the white chief of police. Naturally, that conjures up all types of suspicions and all types of images, no doubt about that,” said Orangeburg, South Carolina, attorney Carl B. Grant, who was hired by Bailey’s family. Bailey was killed in front of the Eutawville police station in 2011 by then–Police Chief Richard Combs after a disagreement over a broken-taillight ticket given to Bailey’s daughter. Eutawville is in Orangeburg County, where 62 percent of the population is African-American. Only three counties in the state have higher black populations.

Combs was indicted for murder last week, but, said Grant, it was a development that had been in the works for months, predating the racially charged events in Ferguson and Staten Island.

Not everyone, however, agrees with Grant, seeing recent national pressure having an impact on local cases.

“[Prosecutor David Pascoe is] trying to make it racial, because his timing is perfect,” Combs' attorney John O’Leary told The Associated Press last week after the murder indictment in Eutawville. “He’s got all the national issues going on, so they want to drag [Combs] in and say, ‘Look what a great community we are here, because we’re going to put a police officer who was doing his job in jail for 30 years.’ That’s wrong. That’s completely wrong.”

State Trooper Sean Groubert was charged in September with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.
South Carolina State Police / AP

There is little hard proof offered as explanation about what — if anything — is being done differently in South Carolina when it comes to holding police accountable for shooting unarmed civilians. What is clear, however, is that not doing anything leaves drastically different impressions. The failure of grand juries to deliver indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island in New York has illuminated a huge divide along racial lines. An overwhelming majority of blacks (80 and 90 percent, respectively) felt the grand juries made the wrong decisions in the Brown and Garner cases (compared with 23 and 47 percent of whites), according to a Pew Research survey released Dec. 5.

And not all grand jury indictments are equal. State Trooper Sean Groubert shot Jones, 31, in the hip in a Sept. 4 seat belt stop that was recorded by a dashboard camera. Jones survived the shooting, and Groubert was fired and then indicted for assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature.

In February 68-year-old Satterwhite was shot and killed by Public Safety Officer Justin Gregory Craven after leading officers on a chase that stretched to Satterwhite’s house in nearby Edgefield. Craven was placed on administrative leave almost seven months after the incident — and a week after he was indicted by an Edgefield County grand jury for a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office. The prosecutor originally sought an indictment for voluntary manslaughter.

“I would be slow to pass out gold medals,” Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said of the recent indictments. “It’s a good preliminary step.” The recent charges in police shootings are tied to communities where black voters are active, he noted.

In the state, where the Confederate flag remains on prominent display on its statehouse grounds, finding a steady tone for the state of race relations can be challenging, even on college campuses. Recently, for example, a Clemson University fraternity had all activities suspended after throwing a Cripmas gang-themed party. A similar racially themed Living the Dream party made headlines in 2007 during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

The recent charges in police shootings are tied to communities where black voters are active, says Dr. Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina NAACP.
Randall Hill / Reuters

But others are more optimistic. “I think there’s something different happening in South Carolina in prosecutors' and solicitors’ offices who are asking for and receiving these indictments,” said University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, who studies the regulation of police forces. “I think communities are more engaged in talking about policing issues, and I think prosecutors are aware of that and, to some extent, responsive to it.”

“A great deal of head scratching comes from how little we know,” Stoughton said of the lack of data related to police officer arrests. Grand jury proceedings, in which prosecutors pick evidence and laws to present and make recommendations, are cloaked in secrecy, he added.

He also said he believes the indictments were “inevitably influenced” by the Brown and Garner cases. “I don’t know if we would have seen the three indictments that we’ve seen recently here in South Carolina if we had gone back a year or so, prior to August,” he said.

“There are large and important sections of the population that have deep race-based concerns about police. And dismissing those as exaggerated or arguing their legitimacy is not going to get us to a more comfortable situation,” Stoughton said.

Officers need significantly more training in de-escalation tactics, he added, and allegations of misconduct should be investigated by independent agencies. “As it exists now, the legal system is not well equipped to create a trusting relationship between police agencies and communities,” he said.

“When you have a system that needs as much correction as policing does and is perceived to, sometimes you need events that shake things up in a pretty big way before you can get on the track of reform,” he said.

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