‘We can do better’

In video released by the State Law Enforcement Division, Justin Craven can be seen rushing toward the driver’s side of the car, lunging in for a split second and then pulling back to fire. SLED Chief Mark Keel wants more training to address officers shooting into cars.

Stunned by The Post and Courier’s finding that 1 in 4 police shootings involve officers who fire at vehicles, SLED Chief Mark Keel said the state needs to spend more time and money on training.

“I am struck by those numbers,” he said Thursday. “Every agency really needs to do some training in regards to shooting into cars. That is an issue that we have seen an increase in, and solicitors are now taking a very hard look at these cases.”

The newspaper’s “Shots Fired” analysis of the State Law Enforcement Division’s files last year first uncovered this statewide pattern. In the following months, other media organizations found similar trends in their areas.

Keel’s comments also come amid a flurry of dash camera and other video footage that show in grainy but dramatic fashion how some South Carolina law enforcement officers are too quick to fire at vehicles.

The latest video was revealed this week in the 2014 case of Ernest Satterwhite, an elderly black man from Edgefield whose case was highlighted in May’s “Shot’s Fired” report.

Dashboard camera video showed Justin Craven, a North Augusta officer, rush toward Satterwhite’s car, struggle with the driver for a moment, then pull back and open fire. Craven pleaded guilty this week to a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in office and received a probationary sentence.

But Satterwhite’s death wasn’t an isolated case, the investigative report found. The review of more than 240 police shootings since 2009 also exposed shortcomings in the state’s training programs.

Keel said he brings up the topic of officer-involved shootings and moving vehicles at meetings and training sessions with police executives statewide. He has implored agency heads to consider specific training when it comes to the practice.

He added that the 12-week course for new law officers at the state’s police academy lags behind others nationwide. The academy offers no specific training that immerses recruits into the decision of whether to fire at vehicles.

The course should be extended to 16 weeks, perhaps 18, Keel said, but that will take more funding from lawmakers. He has lobbied members of both houses in the General Assembly to step up, he said. “We can do better.”

Keel joins a growing chorus of criminal justice experts who say it makes little sense for police to fire at moving vehicles except under the rarest of circumstances.

“It might be justified if you’re trapped in an alley and can’t move out of the way,” said Geoff Alpert, a criminologist from the University of South Carolina. “Or if they’re driving at you and there’s no way you can escape and you’ll do anything to save your life. But even if you do hit him, it’s not going to help you. It’s not going to stop him.”

Clear deadly force rules also prevent officers from using boilerplate statements to justify questionable shootings, he and other experts say. Many departments allow officers to use deadly force when they feel their lives are in jeopardy.

But the “Shots Fired” investigation found that, time and again, officers used canned language about their fears to explain their actions — even when crime scene photos and videos showed officers fired as suspects pulled away.

Some of the state’s largest wrongful-death settlements involved officers who fired at moving vehicles, including last summer’s shooting in Seneca of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond. In that case, a video showed a Seneca officer rush toward Hammond and pump bullets into the side window as the young man tried to flee.

No charges were brought against the officer, but the town and its insurance company recently settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $2.1 million. Since 2009, departments and their insurers have paid at least $25 million to settle wrongful death lawsuits, according to the newspaper’s database.

Despite the costs in blood and money, South Carolina has no specific statewide guidelines that speak to the issue of officers who fire at moving vehicles. This means that policies are left to individual departments — even though motor vehicle chases often happen in multiple jurisdictions.

A few cities in South Carolina, including Charleston, forbid officers from firing at moving vehicles in all but extreme cases, and the city of Greenville overhauled its deadly force policies earlier this year, including directives about when not to shoot at suspects in vehicles.

Charleston’s policy “does say you shouldn’t fire” at moving vehicles, “but it doesn’t prohibit it entirely,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen told the newspaper last year. He wasn’t immediately available for comment, but he said previously that the policy was particularly important in a densely populated place such as Charleston, where errant shots and out-of-control cars could easily harm innocent people.

SLED investigates nearly all of the state’s officer-involved shootings, but the agency often falls short of identifying mistakes that might offer lessons to prevent future occurrences, Greenville Police Chief Ken Miller said. Police agencies’ own examinations should pick up that slack, Miller said.

“A lot of police departments tie the disciplinary process to the prosecutorial process,” he said. “So if a prosecutor sees it as justified ... the police department would say it’s justified.”

That disconnect can unintentionally fuel public mistrust.

“A chief is trying to maintain public confidence,” he said, “while a prosecutor is trying to balance resources based on their chance of winning a case.”

Miller changed his department’s deadly force policies after a Greenville officer opened fire on a car, a case The Post and Courier reviewed in its “Shots Fired” series.

That incident happened Dec. 7, 2013, when officer John Wentzel approached a car at a Comfort Inn and tapped on its window with his flashlight. The driver poked his head out and saw a police officer. The motorist jammed the car into reverse and started backing out of the parking spot.

The officer’s incident report later served as his statement for SLED investigators. In the report, Wentzel said the car jumped onto a sidewalk, and two people leapt from its path. He drew his pistol and ordered the driver to stop. He said he feared that the car would hit him and the bystanders. He then fired at the car’s front windshield, driver’s side door and the trunk. He neglected to mention that he fired as the car sped off and that he’d hit the trunk.

A bullet also struck the driver, Carlton Staggs, but he survived. Police charged Staggs, 22, with the attempted murder of Wentzel, a charge that was later dropped to misdemeanor assault. Staggs got probation.

Based on SLED’s probe, 13th Circuit Solicitor Walter Wilkins found that Wentzel’s actions did not constitute “any criminal behavior beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But Greenville’s own look at the shooting found that at least some of Wentzel’s gunshots were not justified — that the car posed no danger to him while his gunfire posed a danger to others. The department fired Wentzel.

Miller said Wentzel’s termination happened before he took the job as chief, but the case helped propel a wholesale revision of the department’s deadly force policies earlier this year. Under the new guidelines, officers can fire at a car’s driver only if they cannot get out of the vehicle’s path and if it’s the only way to prevent serious injury to someone.

“Smart police administrators are going to examine the local environment,” he said. “They’re going to see there are certain trends and pay attention to the research out there and evaluate their policy. They may or may not come to the same conclusion on firing into vehicles.”

Miller said he was surprised that 1 in every 4 police shootings involved officers who fired at cars. That shows, he said, how it could be an issue everywhere.

At the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, recruits are put through training for traffic stops that randomly subject them to different scenarios. In some of the situations, they may be faced with deciding whether to shoot at a moving car, academy spokeswoman Florence McCants said. But it’s not a scenario that all recruits will experience during their time at the academy, she said.

“We have so many different scenarios,” McCants said. “If they’re not engaged in that scenario they’ll observe another officer engaged in it. It’s best that they get a little bit of everything because all officers are not going to be exposed to the same things.”

She added that more training would take more money, which the academy doesn’t have. It costs the academy $6,700 to send each law enforcement recruit through the 488-hour course until graduation.

“We can train only what we can afford,” McCants said. “Right now it boils down to budget. We can see a need for more. We just cannot afford it.”

Weeks after the newspaper’s “Shots Fired” series, Gov. Nikki Haley created a panel to identify the best policing practices nationwide and find ways to help departments build trust in the communities they serve.

In a letter this week to Haley, Keel and Leroy Smith, director of the Department of Public Safety, acknowledged that South Carolina “lags behind other states in the amount of training time dedicated to basic law enforcement certification” and other aspects of certification, including psychological testing of prospective officers.

Their report was supposed to be completed March 31, but Keel and Smith asked the governor for more time.

Meanwhile, in the first three months of 2016, South Carolina had 12 shootings, roughly one every nine days — the same rate as last year’s record pace.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede. Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554.