Charleston-area officials say police are ‘convenient target,’ fear more violence will follow

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon (left) speaks Friday about the mass shooting of Dallas police officers as Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie wears a black ribbon over the shield on his uniform to symbolize the loss of life.

Charleston-area law enforcement officials on Friday were stricken with sadness over the slayings of Dallas police officers and with apprehension that a copycat killer would target their local comrades.

The shooting came during a protest over police killings that were captured on video and spread online, and the area officials said it indicates a lawless, knee-jerk reaction that’s becoming more common these days.

“I know what’s possible out there and what’s occurred elsewhere in terms of police officers being targeted,” Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said. “So I’m not surprised that this has occurred. Unfortunately, I expect there will be more.”

Other American cities — Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore — have been the scene of riots and violence in the wake of police-involved deaths of black men. That didn’t happen here when footage showed North Charleston police officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott.

But the region is not immune to perplexing violence against officers. In May 2015, the month after Scott’s death, a man walked up to Berkeley County sheriff’s Lt. Will Rogers and shot the lawman in the head outside a store. Rogers survived but later retired.

More recently, on the Fourth of July, North Charleston police officers responding to an erratic driver found themselves taking cover as the suspect abandoned his car and fired at them with a shotgun from a home’s second-story window. Officer Wayne Pavlischek was hit, but his protective vest saved him. Several police cars were struck.

Such startling episodes stress a need for police agencies to be outfitted with equipment that matches the firepower they face in the field, local officials said Friday. But the recent movement to criticize police tactics also has discouraged such military-style weaponry. The federal government, meanwhile, curtailed its distribution of surplus equipment to police departments.

Reports indicated that the Dallas officers faced a sniper — a former Army Reservist — firing at them from the shadows.

It’s a “prime example” that armored vehicles — the focus of much scrutiny — are needed to protect officers, said John Blackmon, president of the Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3.

“We see the ambushes of law enforcement on the rise, and this is just a greater scale,” he said. “When a situation turns bad and you don’t have those tools, it handcuffs them.”

The attack ended with five officers dead and seven others wounded.

On social media, where videos of recent police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota have spread, Charleston-area agencies voiced solidarity with the Texans. Local police chiefs on Friday afternoon strapped a black ribbon over their badges, a widely recognized symbol of death in the line of duty, and stood with Cannon and chaplains in a show of support.

Community members showed they cared about them, too. They sent food to Mount Pleasant officers, and a church group made pictures for Charleston police.

Charleston has a unique window to Dallas’ grief because of last year’s shooting of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church, said the Rev. Robbie Robinson of Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, which counsels officers and crime victims.

“Let us ... support them the way they supported us in our time of violence and tragedy,” he said.

Aside from isolated shootings, local agencies have faced public threats, particularly in the aftermath of Scott’s shooting in North Charleston. There, protesters clashed with each other earlier this year after Slager was released on bail. Some demonstrators were upset that others had not done enough to show displeasure with the authorities.

“Oink, oink. Bang, bang,” some yelled in January outside City Hall.

“We can’t combat violence with violence,” another responded.

“Why not?” a man said.

That crowd dispersed without problems.

But that night, someone set fire to the officer’s former rental house in Hanahan. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but the arsonist and a motive never were identified.

The Dallas episode is the “essence of this kind of irrational and over-the-top response” that’s intended to “shock the conscience of the community,” Cannon said. It affected him personally, too, because his son works as a Greenville County deputy and his daughter as a police officer in Fayetteville, N.C.

“There’s a level of anger being directed toward government, and law enforcement is the most visible element of government,” he said, “so we’re becoming a convenient target for that anger.”

More than ever, Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight worries about his own deputies patrolling the streets. He advised them to be more vigilant, he said Friday.

Knight, too, said he is “baffled” by how more Americans are using violence to right a perceived wrong instead of letting the justice system hash it out. He hears about more suspects lobbing threats at the deputies who arrest them and more witnesses to crime refusing to cooperate with investigators because of their general disdain for police.

“I’ve been at this thing for 40 years, and I’ve never seen it at this level,” Knight said. “If I were a young guy, 25 years old, I’m not sure policing would be my first choice. You used to enjoy it. Now, everything you do, you’re a bad guy.”

His deputies keep up on trends and training, but it would be difficult to prepare for a situation like the one in Dallas, he said.

Local SWAT teams are equipped and skilled in facing threats such as a sniper on a high perch with a rifle and a scope. Most patrol officers also have military-style rifles in their cars in case they need more firepower, but most are not trained to take out snipers.

To Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis, it’s a “reflection of a sad change in society” that within a few weeks, his agency will be the latest to offer a public training session on mass shooters.

“I am concerned about our deputies’ safety, and that never leaves me,” he said. “Now, I’m just trying to tell them about a copycat situation. Someone sees what happened in Dallas and wants to become a martyr, a hero for their cause, may try to copy what’s already been done. That’s my worst fear.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.