‘Chaos at its best’

Ron Burris visits the scene on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard in West Ashley where he was shot 12 times by police in 1999 after leading officers from three jurisdictions on a winding and treacherous chase that lasted several hours. While he takes full responsibility for what happened, he believes if the initial “shots fired” call to dispatch was clarified — to say an officer was shooting at him and not vice versa — he may not have taken so many bullets.

The man who was shot a dozen times by police in one of the most infamous car chases in local history wants to change the way authorities report “shots fired” calls over the radio.

By all accounts, Ron Burris should have died Aug. 23, 1999. He was shot at 48 times after leading police on a six-hour chase through multiple jurisdictions and ultimately crashing in West Ashley. While he takes full responsibility for what happened, Burris said if the initial “shots fired” call to dispatch was clarified to say an officer was shooting at him and not vice versa, he may not have taken so many bullets.

“I believe there should be a specific code; I fired shots at the suspect and the suspect was hit or the suspect is firing shots,” Burris said.

He added that he is disturbed by the current state of police shootings, and every time he hears “shots fired,” it hits close to home.

On July 7, a man driven by his hatred of white police officers killed five Dallas officers and wounded nine. That shooting took place at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest precipitated by two days of violence involving police officers shooting black men in Minnesota and Louisiana. And on July 17 in Baton Rouge, La., a man fatally shot three officers and wounded three before being killed.

Tensions between community members and police officers across the nation has steadily risen over the past few years with the police-involved deaths of black individuals such as Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. Race relations in North Charleston have been poor for decades but plummeted when a video of the fatal police shooting of Walter Scott last year was released.

Scott, 50, was a motorist who fled from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop and fought with North Charleston officer Michael Slager before the policeman shot him five times as Scott ran away. Slager said that Scott had grabbed his Taser before a bystander captured the shooting death on video.

Slager is currently awaiting trial in state court, where he is charged with murder, and federal court, where he is charged with counts of depriving civil rights under the color of law, obstruction of justice and using a firearm in a violent crime.

There is controversy about whether Scott actually did grab Slager’s Taser — an issue Burris particularly took notice of because it was a radio miscommunication that led officers in his case to believe he was initially armed. It turned out he was not armed.

In his initial shots fired call to dispatch, Slager said “subject is down, he grabbed my Taser,” but didn’t specifically state right away that he was the one who fired the shots. That’s what Burris wants to change.

“That struck a chord with me,” he said.

Burris said the only way to address what’s happening when it comes to police and community relations is for there to be accountability and respect on both sides. Creating specific codes that identify immediately if a suspect or officer is shooting will create that accountability, he said.

“It removes the doubt in the public that something’s being covered up,” he said.

When North Charleston officers first tried to stop Burris, a Charleston police dispatcher mistakenly told the North Charleston dispatcher that the car Burris was driving was not stolen. At that point, a North Charleston officer called Palmetto Ford.

A sales manager at the dealership told the officer the car was stolen and “had been involved in some type of robbery earlier in the day,” according to statements at the time from then-Solicitor David Schwacke.

Dispatch then broadcast that the driver of the car was wanted for stealing the car and “robbing a store in the process.”

Later, when an off-duty officer tried to arrest Burris at a gas station, he thought Burris was reaching for a gun and fired at him, but Burris escaped, Schwacke said. He was struck twice and the officer then reported “shots fired” on the radio, but the rest of his report was obscured by radio traffic.

By the time Burris’ car crashed a short time later, officers, believing he was armed, had already begun a hail of gunfire. It also was initially reported to media that Burris had a weapon, but as he put it, the story changed when authorities realized he was going to live through the ordeal.

Schwacke ultimately said the officers, even if they had known Burris was unarmed, acted reasonably when they fired shots into his car because of the danger he posed to officers and the public. He didn’t take a position at the time on whether officers should have fired as many shots at Burris as they did.

Burris served 4½ years in prison.

The North Charleston Police Department declined to speak about Burris’ case or if anything changed in the aftermath. James Gann, now a sergeant at the department, appeared on a TV show years ago and confirmed Burris’ belief that the shots fired call was confusing for responding officers.

“The transmission came out from over the radio, ‘shots fired, shots fired,’” he told the “Nowhere to Run” show. “I didn’t know if it was the officer shooting at Mr. Burris or Mr. Burris shooting back at us.”

Charleston County sheriff’s Maj. Eric Watson didn’t talk specifics about Burris’ case but confirmed that the department doesn’t have a policy in place requiring deputies to specify right away if they or a suspect is firing shots during an incident. An officer reports “shots fired” and dispatch is responsible for clarifying what’s going on.

He said he was unsure the clarification right away would always be possible or helpful.

“You’re talking about a split second. (Deputies’) main focus is to protect themselves and eliminate the threat,” he said. “Initially in police shootings, you’re always going to have chaos. The first five minutes of a call, that’s chaos at its best.”

Watson said the Sheriff’s Office reviews policies and procedures anytime there is an incident like the shooting involving Burris. Policies are revised annually, and in the years since, de-escalation training has been stressed to deputies. The Sheriff’s Office has also worked with the community to bring them in on the training process and educate them about police-involved shootings.

James Lake, director of Charleston County Consolidated 911 Center, said that once a shots fired call comes across the radio, dispatchers simply repeat the officer’s words and put out their unit number to other officers.

“If they don’t tell us right away (who is firing shots), we don’t query that from them until they’re ready.”

The reason, he said, is that an exchange of gunfire could be ongoing as it’s called into dispatch. But, he added, it usually doesn’t take long for an officer to relay who fired shots because they don’t want other responding officers walking into a hot-zone and being shot.

Lake didn’t take a position on whether officers should be required to report immediately who is in control of a gun because he said it affects law enforcement more than dispatch officials.

“From our perspective, it doesn’t really matter who initiated the shots. If there are actively being shots fired ... we still (have) the same response.”

Reach Melissa Boughton at 843-937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.