At least 31 times in 10 years, Sheriff’s Office deputies in South Carolina’s Greenville County fired their weapons at someone. A person died in 19 of those shootings.
In each case, authorities determined the shootings were justified, and no deputies were disciplined.
Yet the fallout from each of the shootings lingers. Someone dies or is seriously injured; families grasp for explanations; communities become hesitant to interact with the people sworn to protect them; and officers’ careers — and sometimes their mental state — are changed after a pressure-filled, split-second decision.
Tiffany Copeland is one of many people facing the aftermath of a deadly shooting by an officer. Her life has been desolate after deputies shot and killed her fiance, Jermaine Massey.
Her wedding planning book still sits in her room — names assigned to reception tables, colors selected for the groomsmen. Her engagement ring is tucked away in a drawer, no longer gleaming on her finger.
There are about a dozen little things Massey once took care of that Copeland now faces alone. She’s in a cloud of grief yet forced to adjust to life as a single mother of two.
“My kids keep me going,” the 25-year-old said. “If I didn’t have these kids, I don’t know where I’d be now.”
On a dreary day in March 2018, Massey, the father of Copeland’s children, called deputies to his home during a mental breakdown. The incident ended with four deputies firing 11 shots that killed Massey in the backyard of his and Copeland’s home in the Poe Mill community. He was 35 years old.
Massey’s death was the last at the hands of Greenville deputies in the 10-year span ending in 2018, according to South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) data. Since then, county deputies have been involved in four more shootings.
In a six-month investigation, The Greenville News analyzed 10 years of statewide shooting data, investigative case files from more than two dozen shootings, court documents, criminal and personnel records, FBI crime data and interviewed dozens of experts, public safety officials and families.
Among the findings:
- Between 2009 and 2018, there were at least 409 shootings by officers in SC, of which 145 were fatal.
- Deputies don’t always use their body cameras, leaving little visual evidence to review. (Body cameras in SC are exempt from disclosure through the Freedom of Information Act, putting the visual record of every shooting by an officer solely in the hands of law enforcement agencies.)
- African Americans are shot by officers at a disproportionately higher rate than Caucasians, both in Greenville County and across the state.
So far this year, there have been more than 30 officer-involved shootings statewide, ahead of the average pace for the previous 10 years.
When these shootings occur, our analysis found that oversight is inconsistent.
Some shootings are never reported to the state law enforcement agency that usually investigates whether laws were broken by officers.
Greenville County, the state’s most populous county with over 506 million residents, leads the state list of fatal police shootings. One out of every eight South Carolina residents killed by law enforcement died in a shooting that involved a Greenville County Deputy.
But on average, one out of every five shootings by the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office were never reported to SLED in a 10-year span.
Even when law enforcement agencies find no wrongdoing by officers, the shootings may end up in civil court. The litigation costs taxpayers because authorities are sometimes forced to pay thousands of dollars in settlements and legal fees.
In addition, information about the shootings is difficult to access because no single agency collects the data.
Locally, some civil rights advocates have asked elected officials to create citizen review boards to examine interactions between police and the community.
But in Greenville County, both the sheriff — who oversees the agency with the most shootings in the state — and the head of the County Council say a citizens review board is a bad idea.
“It won’t happen in this county. They don’t know anything about law enforcement,” said Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown. “Most citizens don’t understand the makeup of law enforcement or understand what we do, so I can’t have them sit in judgment of what we do.”
Law enforcement agencies say officer-involved shootings occur because of increases in violent crime in the community and across the country.
But statistics don’t support that.
U.S. Violence is Declining
Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina, has compiled FBI data on killings and assaults of law enforcement officers and compared the information against national data on violence. His findings show overall violence in the U.S. has dropped, including toward officers.
His research dispels what some law enforcement leaders have said about society being more aggressive, both as a whole and toward cops.
“It is still a dangerous profession,” Stoughton said.”We shouldn’t overlook that. But we also should not exaggerate the dangers by saying and by training officers that this is the most dangerous time to be an officer.
“That’s simply not true.”
Rather than explaining shooting trends with a narrative that places fault on a violent society, Stoughton said, agencies need to analyze their shooting incidents even if officers are cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“What they should be doing is assessing why and not assuming they know why,” he said.
“Without a deep dive into the data, you can’t tell based purely on the number whether that number is a red flag or a green flag.”
Impact on Officers, Too
The shootings leave their marks on those who are shot, the families the injured or dead, and the officer who fired his or her weapon.
“Understand that even though that individual — let’s say it is a deadly force encounter — does not go home and we did, we have to live with that for the rest of our lives. And it’s a burden, and that continues,” said Lt. David Weiner with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office who’s been involved in three shootings in his 19-year career.
Shootings most often stem from suicide threat calls, domestic cases or someone under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Often, but not always, the person involved is armed.
“I have no idea why we had that many shootings,” Greenville County Sheriff Johnny Mack Brown said. “Are people more aggressive? Yeah. Are the shootings happening all over the U.S. that are being contested, causing people to be more aggressive? I think it has.
“This is a time of no respect for law enforcement.”
Greenville County’s Sheriff Brown added that he believes more guns are being brought into the area, so deputies are more often faced with situations involving firearms.
According to SLED’s 10 years of data, 57 of the 409 shootings in the state were classified as domestic-related calls, nine were drug-related, 54 were related to someone armed with a weapon, 56 were from traffic stops, and six were listed as ‘”mental subjects.” Other cases did not have an offense listed.
Based on the inconsistent manner in which SLED is notified, determining an accurate number of shootings by law enforcement per agency is difficult. The Greenville News’ analysis of police shootings across South Carolina relied on SLED’s record-keeping. Additional shooting cases from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office were discovered while reviewing deputies’ personnel files for reporting on several stories unrelated to this story.
‘Drop the Knife’
The shooting of Jermaine Massey last year fell into the common category of “suicidal subject.” Massey called 911 and told a dispatcher he was bipolar and didn’t want to harm himself or his family. He held a knife to his chest when four officers surrounded him while he sat on his back stoop that day.
When deputies arrived, they drew their guns inside Massey’s fenced-in back yard. “Drop the knife,” they demanded 52 times. Massey appeared agitated. He stood up and paced back and forth, swinging the knife in the air at times. At least two deputies tried to deploy their Tasers. Then, as Massey lunged forward, deputies fired.
He fell on the muddy grass, a few steps from his daughter’s pink bicycle with training wheels by the back door of his house. That is where he died.
Officers were on scene for about five minutes and 50 seconds before the fatal shots were fired. SLED and the Sheriff’s Office ruled the shooting was justified.
The events were captured on body camera videos that were eventually released by the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s Office after weeks of demands from the public and requests from The Greenville News. That the video was released is, in itself, unusual in South Carolina, where body camera footage is exempt from public disclosure.
Massey’s shooting was the county’s last before the agency announced a new policy geared toward transparency. The Sheriff’s Office said it would begin releasing edited clips of body camera footage and 911 calls 45 days after its deputies fire their guns at anyone.
There are about 1,000 fatal officer-involved shootings every year in the U.S., according to data collected since 2015 by The Washington Post.
Public interest, scrutiny and accountability over those shootings, and policing in general, are the subject of many national debates and conversations. That’s in part because of several high-profile shootings of unarmed black men in recent years and a steady increase in the inspection of video evidence often provided by the public rather than law enforcement.
Statistics show that officer-involved shootings are rare when compared to the totality of police interactions with the public. Those 1,000 shootings happen in a nation where 900,000 local, state and federal police officers working for 18,000 different agencies make contact with more than 60 million people, said Stoughton, the associate of law professor at the University of South Carolina.
Stoughton, a former Florida police officer, has co-authored a book set to publish in 2020 on evaluating police use of force.
“Any one fatal shooting is inherently an anomaly,” he said. “There are tens of millions of police interactions with community members every year depending on what you categorize as an interaction.”
In the eyes of the law, lethal force is justified if an officer has a reasonable suspicion there is an imminent threat of serious injury or death to the officer or someone else. The factors in making that decision are rooted in detailed law enforcement policies, but are made in the tense microseconds of emotionally charged encounters, the most fraught moments an officer will face in his or her career.
“They seldom pull their weapon unless they are faced with a danger,” said Sheriff Brown. “We don’t create situations; we respond to situations and we react.
“We’re trained to use what force is necessary to perfect an arrest. My thought is always and will be, if you point a gun at one of my deputies, we’re going to shoot you.”
This is an abridged and slightly edited version of Part One of an 11-part series published by The Greenville News and reprinted with permission. To read the entire story and other parts of the series, including video reportage, please click here.