NORTH CHARLESTON — Five minutes after Sgt. Eddie Bullard was shot on the Fourth of July, a fellow North Charleston police officer broadcast a description of his supposed assailant — “a black male, dressed in all black.”
Officers later specified that the gunman wore black gloves and a black hooded sweatshirt.
Bullard, who was lucid but hurting from the bullet his protective vest absorbed, remained vague and expanded little on the description. In his radio communications, he reported seeing one male in front of him when another came from behind. He never mentioned skin color.
But for members of the eight police agencies who amassed for a manhunt, the broadcast about a black male took hold.
A pedestrian fitting the description was detained. Motorists near the crime scene on Rivers Avenue were stopped. Helicopters scanned the ground.
At least one person was arrested on unrelated charges.
For the police, troopers and deputies who participated, it was a standard effort to corral a man suspected of shooting one of their own. But for some members of the area’s black community who later learned that Bullard shot himself, pinning the assault on a black man created an impression of racial bias.
“There was an immediate full-court press to find out who did this,” said the Rev. Joe Darby of the Morris Brown AME Church. “It leaves us with questions of confidence in the police and their mindset in regards to race.”
Police officials insisted that the description arose from a miscommunication. Bullard’s report on the suspect’s dark clothing was misinterpreted by responding officers to mean that the man’s skin also was black, said police spokesman Spencer Pryor.
“We were able to review the audio transmission and able to determine that this happened due to confusion,” he said. “This was an isolated incident.”
Pryor would not explain why the story went uncorrected for two days after the incident, when Chief Jon Zumalt discussed Bullard’s lie during a news conference and expressed regret over the resources that the search consumed.
The city’s mayor, Keith Summey, said the case is unique and not a sign of race-related issues.
“We had a guy who somehow went off the deep end,” Summey said. “He screwed up. His whole life is screwed up right now. But that can happen in any organization.”
Police officials have declined to discuss what led Bullard to shoot himself.
Lisa Bullard, the sergeant’s wife and a victim advocate with North Charleston police, said last week that she and Bullard are separated and estranged. She did not go into details.
Megan Clark of Charleston said she had an affair with Bullard that led to the birth of their son, Mason, who is now 16 months old.
The 24-year-old met Bullard in 2009 while she was managing a Rivers Avenue Chick-fil-A restaurant, where he would often stop and eat. They started “messing around” in March 2010, and she got pregnant.
Bullard cut things off when she was six months pregnant and has had little to do with their son beyond paying child support, Clark said.
“He’s seen him once, and that’s it,” she said.
Clark had spoken with Bullard a few times in recent months, mainly over child support issues, she said. He complained of having a lot on his mind and working several off-duty jobs to earn extra money for bill payments. But he never seemed unstable, she said.
After the shooting, “he told me he was fine,” Clark said, “but he said he was going to be on workmen’s comp for a while and there might not be as much money for child support.”
Clark, who is black, said she was not troubled by false accounts that the shooting was carried out by black man. That would make sense, she said, because it accurately reflects who lives in the area.
“It’s just reality,” she said. “If it happened in Mount Pleasant, you would probably say a white man did it.”
When Bullard shot himself, it set off an effort that ultimately proved unnecessary. And to critics of the North Charleston Police Department, it was the latest in a series of incidents they claim show a racial bias.
Bullard pulled up to the Carpet Wholesalers building at 6929 Rivers Ave. around 4:30 a.m. and told dispatchers, “I’ll be out with a suspicious male, dark clothing, behind the building,” according to a recording of radio chatter.
More than two minutes later, he calmly announced: “I’ve been shot, dispatch. ... I was out with one. There was another one that came up behind me.”
Pfc. Anthony Doxey was the first officer to mention a black male over radio communications.
Another would later write in a report that Bullard himself “advised that two black male subjects fled towards the rear of the building.”
Officers started surrounding the area, setting up on the nearby Midland Park Road and canvassing a mobile home community to where the assailant supposedly fled. Police dogs started tracking. Officers found fresh tire tracks.
Sixteen minutes after the shooting, they detained the first suspect, who was emerging from the woods on Victory Lane. One resident of Midland Park Road, 61-year-old Willie Sharper, who is black, was stopped five hours after the shooting and arrested on a warrant for $445 in unpaid traffic tickets.
Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said Sharper’s case was one of several complaints he handled as a result of the search.
“They were completely swarmed in that neighborhood,” said Bryant, who already has called for police officers to undergo sensitivity training. “People were very distraught about it. “They’re just looking for answers now. That’s all.”
Since 2006, when North Charleston was labeled the seventh-most-violent city nationwide, police stepped up patrols and traffic stops in troubled communities, especially after violent crimes.
That those neighborhoods’ populations are mostly black drew criticism from organizations such as the NAACP.
Elder James Johnson of the Church of New Creation in North Charleston said the police were “lucky no one got shot” as a result of the increased contact after the July 4 incident. Johnson said he doubted Bullard’s story from the start.
“We know blacks commit many crimes in these communities,” Johnson said. “But not everything can be blamed on a black male.”
The department’s critics were not alone in their initial skepticism of Bullard, Summey said. Bullard’s activities that morning didn’t add up, the mayor said.
As a sergeant, Bullard didn’t regularly conduct business checks. If anyone was breaking into the building, their loot — carpets — wouldn’t be the easiest to pawn off. The attacker’s clothing — gloves and a hood — wasn’t typical of 100-degree weather.
And Bullard, a 15-year veteran trained to be observant, wasn’t able to relay a precise description.
“We suspected something wasn’t right that night,” Summey said. “But all we could do is put out the description we got until we could corroborate our suspicions.”
Thomas Dixon, a member of the antiviolence Old School/New School Coalition, applauded Zumalt for apologizing to the community, but he said the damage has been done.
Dixon said Bullard’s story, though it wasn’t necessarily directed at them, has shaken black people’s confidence in the authorities charged with guarding their neighborhoods.
“It’s a troubling situation as far as being a black man living in the community,” he said. “I’m trying to foster a good rapport between the community and the police, but his actions made us uncomfortable.”
Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.