By Robert Kittle
If it seems like there have been more officer-involved shootings in South Carolina lately, you’re right. The State Law Enforcement Division says there have been 29 so far this year. At that pace, that would mean 50 by the end of the year, a 15-year high. There were 27 in all of 2009, but the number has increased to more than 40 in each of the last three years.
The shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston on April 4th has gotten the most attention, since there was video that shows a police officer shooting Scott in the back as he was running away. Former officer Michael Slager was fired and is now facing a murder charge.
And this week, a now-former officer in Ohio was indicted on a murder charge for shooting Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing stopped DuBose for not having a front license plate. The video shows DuBose starting to drive away and Tensing shooting through the car’s open window.
University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Tallahassee, says he thinks part of the problem is that officers get a lot more training in using lethal force than they do in de-escalating a situation. “Police are trained to focus on the severity of the risks that every encounter and every individual present, the possibility that someone will pull out a gun or a knife or attack them violently. But they’re not trained about how rare that actually is,” he says.
He thinks training should be changed to better reflect that, and to put at least as much emphasis on ways to avoid the use of lethal force as there is on how and when to use it.
Florence McCants, spokesperson for the state Criminal Justice Academy, says training has not been changed at the academy because of the increase in officer-involved shootings. She says cadets are trained in how to de-escalate situations, but shoot or don’t shoot decisions come down to an officer’s judgment.
“Did they feel like they were in jeopardy, or the lives of someone else was in jeopardy? So it all boils down to judgment, and judgment is really one of those things that you just can’t train for,” she says.
She also points out that the training officers get at the academy is just a foundation, and officers get more training once they get back to their departments.
Lt. Curtis Wilson, spokesman for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, says, “Each and every year we have to go through cultural diversity training, tactical communication, verbal judo. All of these types of things that we do help us when we’re out there on the street to reduce the level of violence or even the use of force. We have been using and training with non-lethal weapons. This, of course, will help reduce use of force as well.” He says verbal judo is training in how to talk to people to calm them down in hopes of avoiding violence.
One factor that might also be increasing officer-involved shootings is officers’ increased fear for their own lives. While officer-involved shootings are up, so is the number of officers killed in the line of duty by criminals. According to the FBI, 51 officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2014, an increase of almost 89 percent from the year before, when there were 27 killed.