No online chatter about DeWitt, chief orders

The vehicle driven by Wayne DeWitt is seen crossing back and forth over the lines.

Shortly after he stopped Sheriff Wayne DeWitt last month, a Hanahan police officer was told that he could lose his badge if he spread word online of the encounter that led to a drunken driving arrest.

In a conversation caught on video, a superior referred to the "gag order" from Police Chief Mike Cochran as a way to make sure agency information went "nowhere but internal."

"This is a dead zone," the superior said. "No social media, no nothing - not even a mention of 'We had excitement.'

"Our chief is just concerned about damage control."

But Cochran insisted Tuesday that the footage did not explain why his agency chose not to charge the sheriff with failure to stop for blue lights after video showed DeWitt's pickup speeding away from the officer at more than 100 mph.

Instead, Cochran said it was an effort to stress that social media wasn't the forum for officers to share information about the episode.

Cochran's agency turned over the entire case to the S.C. Highway Patrol, whose representatives have said that it would be up to Hanahan police to charge DeWitt with not stopping for the officer.

"The situation is obviously sensitive," Cochran said. "If you ... were to take a look at other cases, not everybody gets charged with that. But this is in Scarlett Wilson's hands, so I'm not willing to go any further with this conversation."

Wilson, who leads the 9th Circuit Solicitor's Office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any additional charges that prosecutors could pursue against DeWitt.

He faces counts of driving under the influence and leaving a crash scene with personal injury.

While the Highway Patrol levied those charges and released records that The Post and Courier requested through the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, the Hanahan Police Department has not responded to FOIA queries for its documents.

Cochran has delayed the release of records in past situations. In August 2013, the chief cited the need for a complete report about the Hanahan officers who fatally shot a man who had fired at them during a traffic stop. It was made public a week later.

DeWitt issued a statement Monday in which he apologized for what he called embarrassing conduct but stressed that he would work to regain the public's trust by continuing to work as sheriff.

But DeWitt's second in command, Chief Deputy Rick Ollic, said Tuesday he was still in charge of day-to-day operations at the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office.

"He is overseeing the Sheriff's Office, and I am running the day-to-day operations," Ollic said. "That's the only way I can put it."

Kelly DeHay of Moncks Corner, a co-chapter leader and victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the Charleston area, applauded DeWitt for his apology but said Tuesday that it should have come before the video of his arrest was made public.

DeHay, whose 3-year-old daughter died in a 2007 crash caused by a drunken driver, said that Berkeley County needed a "responsible sheriff" but that MADD would not take a position on whether DeWitt should step aside before his trial.

"We hope that he takes full responsibility for his actions like he says he will and sets a better example in the future," DeHay said. "This was a poor decision, and he needs to get help."

DeWitt was driving his county-owned Ford F-150 around 5:40 a.m. Dec. 28 when it crashed into the back of a Nissan sedan at Red Bank Road and Henry E. Brown Jr. Boulevard. DeWitt later said that he didn't see the car until he hit it, but he continued driving southward toward North Rhett Avenue, troopers said.

The Nissan's driver, 21-year-old Robert Gonzales, followed him and called 911. Gonzales was still able to drive his heavily damaged car. He might have been hurt, but he told a dispatcher that he had an "adrenaline rush."

"You have a cop right there," Gonzales said during the call, which was obtained this week from the Sheriff's Office through a FOIA request. "He might pull him over, I think."

By then, Gonzales had seen the patrol car of Officer Justice Jenkins of the Hanahan Police Department just as DeWitt's Ford sped by it.

Jenkins switched on his blue lights and gave chase, but DeWitt didn't stop - at times, his Ford hit 100 mph and ran a red light - until two minutes later and two and a half miles away.

A trooper would later handcuff him after he failed a field sobriety test.

But before the trooper arrived, Hanahan officers already were discussing how they would handle the department's public accounts of the incident, particularly on social media.

About 40 minutes after the chase, a police supervisor is heard on Jenkins' in-car camera telling him not to relay information about it to the public. The department also was concerned about the officer's history with DeWitt's agency; he had resigned there earlier last year after being ticketed for driving with a suspended license.

"The chief was adamant that if this thing ends up on social media, it's probably going to be somebody's badge," the supervisor said. "So before you start imagining how you're going to tell all your Facebookies about what happened first thing this morning, kill it. It's dead."

The same topic of conversation continued for four minutes.

One officer expressed concern about a passerby who had filmed video of the scene, but the policemen said they could do nothing when word of DeWitt's arrest hit the news media or if any civilians wrote about it online.

They also lamented the circumstances of DeWitt's arrest.

"One of the worst parts about it was that the person that he hit is active-duty military who was actually pulling into the Hardee's to get breakfast before he went on base," the superior said.

"Oh (expletive)," Jenkins said.

"Yeah."

The supervisor commended Jenkins for doing a "fine job," but he continued to offer warnings.

"The less that our name is attached to social media in any way shape or form," he said, "the better."

Cochran said the order, though, was in line with others in past years that have stressed the importance for officers to separate their personal and professional lives on social media.

He cited times when family members elsewhere learned of deaths from officers' postings. Cochran produced an email that he sent three years ago to warn employees about the repercussions of insensitive postings.

"Social media is not the place to discuss things like this," Cochran said. "To me, it's just a matter of professionalism."

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