New suit targets actions by cops

An image from a video shows Charleston County Deputy Cory Shelton rearing back to hit a man who led deputies and police officers on a chase May 28, 2013, through North Charleston and West Ashley. The driver has his hands raised for a North Charleston police officer, at left, pointing a gun at him.

A sheriff’s deputy who repeatedly punched a surrendering felon and a North Charleston police officer who tased the suspect with a stun gun are targets of the latest lawsuit since the fatal shooting of Walter Scott to allege misconduct is ingrained at area law enforcement agencies.

In May 2013, officers chased Peter Jenkins’ car from North Charleston to West Ashley. Jenkins, now 54, eventually stopped and raised his hands over his head.

But Deputy Cory Shelton, a sheriff’s K9 unit member, started punching Jenkins’ head. More than a half-dozen police officers and deputies then pinned Jenkins to the pavement before officer Chris Talbott stunned him with a Taser.

Caught on video, the episode prompted a State Law Enforcement Division investigation. A prosecutor determined that SLED agents might have gathered enough evidence to arrest Shelton. No charges ever came of it, though. Instead, a deputy was suspended for four days.

“I was sure SLED was going to find some sort of fault,” Jenkins’ attorney, Dan Boles of Charleston, said. “But they basically sanctioned what happened. For them not to find wrongdoing bolsters the claim that there’s this ‘look the other way’ mentality and not just with these officers.”

The suit, filed April 15, is the second since Scott’s shooting April 4 by North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager to make nearly identical sweeping accusations that local police agencies have an unwritten policy to ignore misconduct. A video of the shooting has become a graphic symbol of some residents’ long-held complaints of aggressive policing.

A man in the first suit, as well as another North Charleston resident who is expected to make a claim, allege that Slager wrongfully used a Taser against them.

Legal experts have said that Scott’s death created an opening for lawsuits against Slager and the North Charleston police, but Boles said his client’s suit was coincidental to Scott’s death.

Maj. Eric Watson of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deflected the suit’s broader implications, noting that his agency had asked for SLED to investigate the case.

“We routinely request SLED to conduct a separate and independent investigation, so the allegation that we ‘look the other way’ is without merit,” Watson said. “In this case, our deputy was disciplined.”

Police spokesman Spencer Pryor declined to comment on the latest civil court filing, and he did not say whether Talbott also faced internal discipline. Sandy Senn, a West Ashley attorney who usually represents local governments in such cases, said she could not immediately talk about it because she had not been served with copies.

Talbott, now a sergeant, had been named in a federal suit for his involvement in a 2006 episode in which officers shocked Kip Darrell Black with a Taser as many as 10 times. The mentally ill man, who was high on cocaine, later died. His mother’s wrongful-death suit eventually was dismissed because she and her attorney failed to pursue the case.

The police first tried to stop Jenkins’ Kia on May 28, 2013, for traveling down a bicycle lane on Spruill Avenue. At the time, they also suspected that the car’s driver was a 20-year-old man wanted for attempted murder. Their hunch proved wrong.

Jenkins, who had an outstanding warrant for assault, refused to pull over. Instead, he led police west on Interstate 526. Nearly 20 police and sheriff’s cruisers joined the action in West Ashley.

After the authorities blocked his Kia in a parking lot off Wappoo Road, Jenkins appeared to surrender by putting up his hands as an officer pointed a gun at him. He briefly lowered his hands to unlock his door, but he lifted them again before Shelton ran up to his window and hit him in the head.

Officers later wrote in reports that Shelton was trying to dislodge Jenkins’ hands from the steering wheel.

When the deputies and officers got him on the pavement, according to their reports, he refused to put his hands behind his back, prompting Talbott to subdue the man with his Taser. But Jenkins hadn’t been able move his arms, his attorney said, because of the weight of lawmen on top of him.

After Jenkins was in handcuffs, Shelton and another officer were seen fist-bumping each other.

Those details were made public shortly after Jenkins’ arrest, when The Post and Courier obtained footage from Shelton’s in-car camera. But the results of the SLED probe had not been released until recently.

Chief Deputy Solicitor Bruce DuRant, who reviewed SLED’s evidence, declined to pursue an indictment against Shelton in General Sessions Court. But agents might have been able to make an arrest on a lesser charge, he said.

“At the most, probable cause may exist to seek a warrant for assault and battery third-degree,” DuRant said in a letter dated August 2013 and released last week.

While Shelton avoided charges, the Sheriff’s Office suspended him without pay for four days and kicked him out of the K9 unit, Watson said last week. He’s now on regular patrol.

Jenkins, meanwhile, was jailed on a charge of resisting arrest that was later dropped. Instead, he pleaded guilty to failing to stop for blue lights and was sentenced to three years in prison. He’s now serving 10 years behind bars on unrelated charges of strong-armed robbery and grand larceny.

The injuries to his head, face and skin from the confrontation have caused lasting pain, his attorney said. Boles decided to file the suit before the statute of limitations ran out, he said, after his negotiations with the state’s Insurance Reserve Fund, which pays most injury claims against government agencies, had failed.

“To them, he was just a criminal,” Boles said. “He wasn’t worth anything.”

In addition to seeking damages for Jenkins, the resulting suit contained some of the same elements as two other cases alleging excessive force by North Charleston officers.

The first stemmed from a 2014 traffic stop in which Slager hit a man in the back with a Taser. Attorneys for that man, Julius Wilson, have said that Scott’s shooting revived their claim against the officer.

Mario Givens, who appeared at a news conference days after Scott’s shooting, also said Slager wrongly shocked him with a Taser in 2013. Givens has not filed a claim.

The two civil complaints filed so far contain seven pages of similar accusations.

Jenkins’ suit alleged that Sheriff Al Cannon, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers and other “powers that be” are “deliberately indifferent” to improper behavior, creating a culture of such conduct.

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