Police officers qualifications questioned after deadly St. Stephen chase
Lt. Harold Lee Wadford was the lead pursuer as a shoplifting suspect’s pickup sped away from him and two other St. Stephen police officers.
The GMC led them down a narrow dirt road with Wadford’s cruiser close behind. It kicked up dust, cutting into Wadford’s visibility.
That’s when Wadford, a supervisor, ordered a slowdown of the pursuit that had hit 75 mph. Despite a desire to catch a driver the police said tried to run them over, Wadford expressed safety concerns.
“I advised all units to back off ... and to proceed at a safe speed,” Wadford wrote.
That account is based on an incident report obtained from the St. Stephen Police Department through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request. The town’s police chief has backed Wadford, saying he did everything right during the Oct. 30 chase that ended with the death 53-year-old driver and longtime thief Ronald Smith.
But a video from a cruiser trailing Wadford, which was released Tuesday under FOIA provisions, is of such poor quality that it does not confirm the police force’s accusations that Smith threatened lives by trying to ram vehicles.
The pursuit also has called into question Wadford’s status as a reserve officer. He is paid for three or four days weekly, Chief John Waters said, but state law requires reservists to work on a volunteer basis only.
Waters said Monday that he wasn’t aware of the statute prohibiting pay. The next day, he explained that Wadford was paid only for his administrative work, not for patrolling the streets.
Waters also filed a FOIA request with The Post and Courier that asked for the identity of the source who first informed journalists about Wadford. But the newspaper is a private company, not a taxpayer-funded institution, and is exempt from FOIA law, a reporter informed him.
Waters expressed a fear that someone had a vendetta against him. Criticizing a reserve officer who has diligently served the cash-strapped town is “nitpicking,” he argued. Wadford is paid only $12.50 an hour, he said.
“I couldn’t survive without him,” the chief said. “He probably has more certifications than my other officers.”
Waters has stood by his department in the face of criticism from Smith’s mother, who has called for video proof of the officers’ actions.
But the 20-minute video is marred with static, an issue Waters said experts could not fix. State troopers are tasked with determining whether Smith’s pickup was struck before it went off the road.
“You can’t make out much” in the video, Waters said. “But they were not close to the truck.”
Reserve officers like Wadford must complete training at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and pass a written exam, according to the law. They undergo 162 hours of coursework — 360 hours less than a full-fledged officer.
Florence McCants, an academy spokeswoman, said a reservist could get paid by a school for working a parking detail at a football game, for example, but not by a police agency.
Training history documents obtained from the academy through a FOIA request stated that Wadford has been a reserve officer in St. Stephen since 2003 and that he recently obtained a specialty certification for drunken-driving detection.
Wadford, 32, also has worked as a captain in the North Charleston Fire Department since 1998 and has volunteered as an assistant fire chief in St. Stephen. He was not available for comment Tuesday.
“The biggest issue is that (reservists) don’t have all the required training,” McCants said. “The law is set in stone about what training you need. A reserve officer would not have done that.”
Wadford was the last officer to join the chase that ended with Smith’s death.
Smith was wanted on charges of stealing NyQuil, Alka-Seltzer and a pack of T-shirts from a Dollar General store.
During a traffic stop involving two St. Stephen policemen, Smith’s pickup moved toward Officer Kenneth Younginer, who jumped out of the way, a report stated. The pickup also back up toward Officer Shawn Padgett’s car, the police said.
The video shows an officer beside the pickup when it pulled away, but it’s difficult to say whether the driver deliberately steered toward anyone during the 18-minute chase into the Francis Marion National Forest.
The pickup led officers to Bullhead Road A, where Wadford reported that he fell back. The cruiser equipped with the faulty camera distanced itself from Wadford’s car, but the space between Wadford’s cruiser and the pickup isn’t discernible in the video.
When the officers found the wrecked pickup less than 2 miles down the road, Smith already was dead, they reported.
On Tuesday, all that was left of the scene was a cracked rear-view mirror, a birthday card and a shopping list for vegetable oil, red peppers and Dawn detergent.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414.