CHESTER — The mayor of this small South Carolina city called for two police officers to be fired Tuesday after the police chief acknowledged they failed to properly activate their body-worn cameras during a fatal shooting of a handcuffed suspect.
"There is no room for any officer with the city of Chester who does not follow established protocol," Chester Mayor Wanda Stringfellow said.
Stringfellow is a cousin of 28-year-old Ariane McCree, who was shot to death by Chester officers in a Walmart parking lot in November.
Chester Police Chief Eric Williams on Tuesday maintained his officers opened fire because McCree had pointed a gun at them while he was handcuffed behind his back.
One of those officers, Nicholas Harris, was reprimanded by the department for not activating his body camera during the incident. The other officer, Justin Baker, has not faced any discipline, Williams said.
Both officers remain on active duty. A decision to terminate the officers would have to come from a majority vote of the Chester City Council, Stringfellow said. They meet next on June 22.
McCree's direct family has called for both officers to be fired and criminally charged.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson declined to bring charges in March, but after Baker's body cam video was released last week, Wilson requested federal prosecutors also review the case.
During a more than hour-long news conference Tuesday, Williams acknowledged the family's concerns and the weeks of protests against police brutality that have swept the country after the Minnesota police killing of George Floyd last month.
“I can understand the injustice … and I don’t support it," Williams said.
He said his department will now require officers complete training courses on diversity and de-escalation. In a dramatic moment in front of TV cameras, he also agreed to demonstrate how a detained suspect could still point a gun from behind their back. He did so at Stringfellow's request.
Williams hesitated before allowing another officer to handcuff him. Using a plastic training gun, Williams brandished the object at his side, pointing it straight forward just as officers contend McCree pointed a gun.
McCree's family contends the body camera video does not show McCree threatening the officers in any way.
The video shows what appears to be a silver object, possibly McCree’s gun, near his right side. But it does not clearly show McCree aiming the gun at officers or even holding it in his hand. The video does show an officer recovering a pistol by McCree’s right side after he collapsed to the ground. Investigators later identified the pistol as one he bought at a pawnshop.
When McCree first comes into view on the video, he is across the parking lot. Baker opens fire from about eight cars away.
During Tuesday's press conference, Williams faced repeated questions about the moments leading up to McCree's killing and why police body cameras failed to capture more of the episode.
Baker did not immediately activate his camera, as department policy requires. That caused his body camera video to lack audio in several key moments, including what was said before officers opened fire.
Williams insisted that Baker told McCree to drop his weapon. But when pressed, Williams acknowledged there is no record of that command.
"So it’s the officer’s word only that he gave the command?" Stringfellow asked Williams during Tuesday's news conference.
“That’s correct," Williams said.
Still, Williams defended his officers.
"When someone is pointing a firearm at you and walking toward you, I don’t know of a whole lot of de-escalation that you can insert in that situation, but to respond," Williams said.
A separate video, from the dashboard camera of Baker's police cruiser, does contain audio. On the recording, obtained by The Post and Courier through an open records request, an officer can be heard yelling. It sounds like a command to put his hands up, not to lower his firearm.
Police say McCree was handcuffed from the moment he was detained in Walmart through when he was shot.
McCree did not fire his weapon, according to ballistic evidence gathered by State Law Enforcement Division investigators.
Baker shot at least 13 times; Harris at least 11, according to SLED.