Most encounters with the police end without any grabbing or pushing or shooting. When a so-called “officer-involved critical incident” occurs, it’s usually unavoidable. But in a tiny percent of cases, innocent people are shoved to the ground, held in painful, even deadly, positions, shot, sometimes killed — sometimes tragically but unavoidably, and sometimes quite avoidably.
An encounter this summer in an Upstate man’s home clearly was a case of an innocent person being shot. For weeks, it seemed as though it might have been unavoidable. But this week the department released the video from the deputy’s body-cam, and what we saw simply could not be reconciled with that original explanation.
The sheriff’s department reported in June that after a deputy responding to a medical alarm knocked on Dick Tench’s door, “The gentleman came to the door, jerked it open immediately, presented and pointed a gun directly at the deputy at which time the deputy returned with fire.”
But we now know that’s not what happened. We don’t know this because Mr. Tench filed a lawsuit that required the department to release the video. We certainly don’t know it because state law required it be released; state law specifically allows police to hide body-cam video from the public.
A South Carolina homeowner who was shot by a deputy checking a medical alarm did not jerk open his front door with a gun and was instead standing in the home's foyer when the officer shot through a window, according to body camera footage released Monday.
We know this because, unlike most S.C. law enforcement agencies, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Department has a policy of releasing video and other relevant information within 45 days. That gives the State Law Enforcement Division, the department’s internal affairs officers and the solicitor time to get at least a good start on an investigation, but also helps the department show the public it’s not trying to hide what deputies do. And that is absolutely critical to maintaining public trust in our police.
The video shows that Mr. Tench was inside his home when the deputy saw movement, shined his flashlight through a glass panel alongside the door, saw the gun and started shooting through the glass. After he was shot, Mr. Tench yelled out for someone to call the police — only to be told by the shooter that he was the police. When the deputy came inside to render first-aid, the homeowner yelled: “I saw lights, and I heard the doorbell ring, so I got my gun. I’m a concealed weapons guy.”
Several seconds later, he asked the deputy, “Why did you do that?” The deputy responded, “Because you pointed a gun at me, man,” and Mr. Tench replied, “Dude, you came to my house at 12 o’clock at night, I’m sleeping. ... I’ve got to protect my house.”
Mr. Tench survived, although he had to spend 30 days with bullets lodged in his aortic artery and pelvis. The deputy is on administrative duty. We can all be thankful that 1) Mr. Tench survived and 2) this didn’t happen somewhere other than Greenville County, where we might never have learned that the original story was wrong. The Sheriff’s Department says a spokesman got the information wrong, but the department didn’t set the record straight in the 45 days before the video was released, and didn’t retract the misleading statement until after the headlines shouted out the discrepancy.
Body-cam video was supposed to hold police accountable when they do something wrong and exonerate them when they don’t. There was never any justification for exempting it from the state’s Freedom of Information Act, and letting police and prosecutors decide whether we have a right to see the circumstances under which police injure or kill people in our names.
This video serves as a powerful reminder to our legislators that they must require police to release these videos. Until that happens, any officials who are running honest police agencies will do the same.