Invest in lives, invest in police and invest in training

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon says prohibiting police from shooting into vehicles in most situations is something more law enforcement agencies need to consider.

It would be criminal to think police officers don’t have every right to protect themselves out on the street.

They do dirty, dangerous work for not nearly enough pay — and no job is worth getting killed over.

That doesn’t mean every officer-involved shooting is justified, as critics of The Post and Courier’s “Shots Fired” series seem to argue. People have accused the newspaper of stirring things up with the five-part series, claimed that reporters hate cops.

That’s not the case, of course.

Police shootings have dominated the national news for a year. And in the wake of Walter Scott’s death — which definitely was not a justified shooting — the time is right to look at the way these cases are handled.

The biggest issues here are how the State Law Enforcement Division investigates police shootings, how officers are trained and the practice of shooting into fleeing cars, which account for 25 percent of police-involved deaths in the past five years.

Shooting into moving cars is so controversial that many police departments, including Charleston’s, already forbid it in most instances.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, a veteran lawman, agrees that is something more law enforcement agencies need to consider.

But he says another problem is the apparent disconnect between “what people expect of police officers and what we’re capable of.”

And that’s an area where everyone, including SLED, needs some work.

SLED, which investigates most officer-involved shootings in South Carolina, usually sides with the police — but not always.

They determined that state Highway Patrol Lance Cpl. Sean Groubert should not have shot Levar Jones at a convenience store outside of Columbia last September. Jones was pulled over on a seat-belt violation, got out of his car and was shot when he reached back in to retrieve his wallet, as the trooper requested.

SLED made the right call — Groubert shot at Jones once even after he had his hands in the air — but Cannon says even then there were warning signs that would have put any officer on alert: Jones dove back into his car, the sheriff says, quicker than most people would.

In a similar case out of York County last year, a deputy shot a man when he got out of his truck during a traffic stop and then — as the deputy yelled at him — reached back into the cab and pulled out a long, dark cylindrical object.

It was just a cane, but should the deputy take a chance when a man is reaching for something that looks very much like a shotgun? SLED didn’t think so, and that was probably the right call.

Those cases show the gray area of police work, and why people need to think when interacting with law enforcement. It’s clear neither Jones nor the man in York County have read former FBI agent Quentin Williams’ “How Not to Get Killed by the Police.”

He will tell you that you don’t get out of your car, keep your hands in plain sight and don’t make sudden moves. A police officer’s first priority is to make sure he gets home that night, Williams says, and he’s not going to take any chances.

Can’t blame them.

The problem is when an officer is not in any real danger and shoots anyway.

Right now, state law is nebulous — it says an officer can shoot when he feels threatened.

Nearly a quarter of police-involved shootings involve officers who say they were threatened by cars. But is a car driving away from an officer a threat?

Did Anderson police really need to shoot a fleeing shoplifting suspect? The officer said he feared for his life, but video clearly shows him beside the car — not in its path.

And even if police think a fleeing suspect is a danger to others, why not aim for the tires?

Incidents like that not only lead to death, they can also undermine the police.

Cannon says that since Ferguson, the focus has been on the relationship between communities and law enforcement. There has to be mutual respect and trust, he says, but looking at only one side makes no more sense than sending one spouse to marriage counseling.

In the end, it’s all common sense. Traffic stops are dangerous, and Cannon says officers are taught to be prepared for the worst — and that you can’t just turn that high alert on and off.

The state has been predictably slow to fund additional training for officers, which could help. But you’ve got to figure that would be cheaper than paying out $17 million in wrongful shooting lawsuits.

This is a delicate issue. Split-second decisions are the norm in police work.

In Hollywood earlier this month, two thugs broke into Bryant Heyward’s house, and he did what many people would — he called 911 and grabbed a gun.

When Deputy Keith Tyner arrived, the first person he saw was a man with a gun — it was Heyward. He told the man to drop the gun, and then fired.

It was a terrible, tragic accident caused, no doubt, by a lack of communication.

Cannon says the focus on time between a warning and a shot is misleading. If Heyward was turning toward Tyner with a gun in his hand, hesitation could have meant the difference between the deputy living or dying.

That was simply an accident.

But it’s not an accident when an officer shoots an alleged shoplifting suspect driving away, and it was not an accident when Michael Slager shot Scott.

The community needs to learn how to interact with police, but the state needs to invest in more police training — and SLED needs to learn the difference between accidents and mistakes.

That would not only help the public, it would help the police.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.