Charleston NAACP officials on Wednesday called on the U.S. Justice Department to launch a broad investigation into what they described as a “troubling and outrageous trend” of area police using lethal force against black men.
Dot Scott, president of the civil rights organization's Charleston branch, said Saturday's fatal shooting of Derryl Drayton by Charleston County sheriff's deputies on James Island is one of four police-involved shootings since March 2012 that demand greater attention.
Though police have a right to defend themselves, officers who have declared “open hunting season on black men” need to be removed from the ranks of law enforcement, Scott said during a press conference in front of the NAACP's Columbus Street headquarters.
Scott said a cultural belief seems to exist among some law enforcement officers that it is acceptable to use excessive and lethal force against blacks. That belief has been reinforced by the lack of action taken in the past against officers involved in fatal shootings, demonstrating that “the likelihood of there being consequences for killing a black person is slim to none,” she said.
The two deputies who shot Drayton have been placed on paid leave while the State Law Enforcement Division investigates, but NAACP officials said they don't want to trust the probe entirely to SLED.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III, a vice president of the national NAACP, said SLED has a “dismal record” for investigating police-involved shootings, rarely if ever finding fault with officers who kill black men.
“The sad reality is that very infrequently — almost never — will a police officer kill a black person and ever be charged by authorities for doing that,” he said. “One of the things that has happened over time is that the life of black men, in general, and the lives on black men in this area, in particular, seem to be worth less than the lives of other people.”
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said his agency could not comment on the matter because of its open investigation into the James Island shooting.
Justice Department representatives in Washington, D.C., were unavailable Wednesday because of the federal government shutdown. Beth Drake, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina, would not comment on the NAACP's request for action.
Scott, who has been a frequent critic of area police tactics over the years, said a federal probe should extend beyond the Sheriff's Office and look into the actions and practices of police agencies throughout the county.
Her words were largely met with silence from law enforcement circles, though some police officials said the threat of deadly force, not race, is the driving force behind most police shootings.
“We don't shoot anyone who doesn't try to shoot us first,” said Lt. Michael Fowler of Hanahan police, which had a fatal police-involved shooting in August.
Scott and others said they were troubled by perceived discrepancies in the Sheriff's Office account of Drayton's shooting, and by nagging questions about why lethal force was used against him.
Deputies shot the 51-year-old man, who had a history of mental illness, after responding to a domestic disturbance at his family's Greenhill Road home, authorities said. Drayton had reportedly told his sister that he was going to kill her, then himself.
Sheriff Al Cannon has said deputies caught up with Drayton on Seaside Lane, but he fought their efforts to handcuff him and twice shook off their attempts to subdue him with Tasers. Officers fired on Drayton after he jabbed a deputy in the leg with a knife, he said.
Deputies fired about nine times. Investigators found six wounds on Drayton, but Cannon said it's possible that some of the injuries were from bullets exiting his body.
Witnesses have said Drayton had his hands above his head trying to surrender when he was tased, and that he threw a knife that hit the deputy's leg but didn't stab him.
The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch, questioned why deputies would fire on a man who had just thrown away his weapon and was trying to escape. “How do you shoot a fleeing person to protect yourself?” he said.
Scott said she remained troubled by video that captured a supervising deputy telling his underlings “good job” after the gunfire subsided. “Somebody just died and we have another human being rallying 'good job,' ” she said.
Cannon described the deputy's choice of words as an “unfortunate” reference to deputies professionally guarding their own safety in the face of danger. He has denied that the shooting was the result of bias.
Sheriff's Maj. James Brady said the agency had nothing new to add Wednesday on the shooting. “We have already provided the information we have on the incident,” he said. “There is nothing to rebut.”
Relatives of Drayton stood with NAACP officials during the press conference but declined to discuss or comment on the shooting. Erma Smith, a cousin of Drayton, briefly thanked the community for its support.
“The family is very devastated right now,” she said. “We just ask those who have been praying to continue to pray for us.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.