Many questions, few answers after Walterboro police officer fires shots during foot chase
WALTERBORO, S.C. (WCSC) - It has been more than a month since state law enforcement investigators reported that a Walterboro police officer fired his gun at a man, but officials at the municipal, county, and state levels have refused to release key details about what occurred.
“I think if I were a member of the public in that community, I would either conclude that the police are covering up something or they have no idea what they’re doing,” attorney Jay Bender said.
An urge of caution the night before Thanksgiving
On Nov. 24, Colleton County Fire-Rescue posted a warning on social media telling people to stay at home because the Walterboro Police Department was searching for an armed “male wearing a dark hoodie” around Green Pond Highway and Walterboro Village Apartments.
Walterboro Police did not circulate a press release or post about the matter on social media on that Wednesday evening or in the days that followed.
Two days later on Black Friday, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced in a statement that they were “investigating an incident from Wednesday in which a police officer with the Walterboro Police Department fired shots at an armed man during a confrontation following a traffic stop.”
“The subject fled the scene on foot and has not yet been apprehended,” SLED’s statement added. “No injuries have been reported at this time.”
No update has been shared on whether the “subject” has been found since that statement was released.
“It’s astonishing to me that the person who was the target of the police officer shooting is apparently at large and the police have not thought it necessary to tell the public who it is,” Bender said. “That strikes me as strange. If you want help from the public, to find somebody who is on the run, you should at least tell the public who that person is.”
SLED’s statement did not mention why the “subject” was being pursued, what he was allegedly armed with, where shots were fired, or what led to the “confrontation.”
“This is an ongoing investigation,” the statement added. “As such, no other information about the case will be disclosed by SLED at this time. SLED will defer to the Walterboro Police Department for any information about their officer.”
However, the Walterboro Police Department, which says on its website that it fosters “a spirit of involvement and open communication between citizens and officers,” has not communicated any information about the officer in response to requests from Live 5 Investigates, including the officer’s name and whether he is currently on any sort of leave from the agency.
“This incident is still under investigation by SLED and all other materials related to this case will not be released until further notice [so] as to not compromise the investigation,” Walterboro Police Chief Wade Marvin wrote in an email on Dec. 22.
As time passes, the public is kept in the dark
Immediately after SLED’s statement was released on Black Friday, Live 5 Investigates asked them for additional information about the shooting and also reached out to the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office and Walterboro Police.
The latter two agencies were also sent Freedom of Information Act requests by Live 5 Investigates that sought reports and video footage. Walterboro Police also received a FOIA request seeking personnel records of the officer who opened fire.
The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, an assisting agency at the scene, refused to release any videos or reports. Lt. Keith Crosby of the sheriff’s office said that all requests for information would need to be sent to SLED.
“It is an open investigation and we will not release anything that may hinder their investigation without their consent,” Crosby wrote in an email.
Since FOIA allows for many reports to be released within 14 days to people who request them in person, on Nov. 29, Live 5 Investigates went to the headquarters of Walterboro Police and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, along with SLED’s office in Walterboro, to request any reports and additional information regarding the shooting.
However, no documents were turned over.
“I think that is just a blatant disregard of the General Assembly’s notion that in a democracy, citizens are entitled to know what the government is up to,” Bender said.
FOIA also requires agencies to acknowledge requests within 10 business days if the records being sought are less than two years old, but Walterboro Police failed to do so.
“I think every time the police violate the law, as seems to be the circumstance here by [them] withholding information from the public, the agency’s credibility with the public is diminished,” Bender said. “I can’t think of a circumstance that requires openness more than when you have a police officer firing at someone.”
In an email on Nov. 30, SLED Executive Affairs Director Ryan Alphin wrote that he was working on Live 5 Investigates’ request, but more than three weeks went by before any new information was disclosed.
Initial reports released, but questions persist
On Dec. 22, following repeated inquiries, SLED provided Live 5 Investigates with two Walterboro Police reports that pertain to the incident.
The first report says that an officer stopped a 2004 Honda “for an equipment violation” and that when the officer approached the passenger’s side of the car, the passenger took off on foot.
The document notes that a foot pursuit began and “was unsuccessful in his apprehension.” However, there is no mention of shots being fired.
The driver “advised that he did not know the passenger of whom he had given a ride,” the report says. Police then reportedly took the driver into custody and charged him with operating a vehicle with a suspended license.
The name of the officer who initiated the traffic stop and the names of the reporting and assisting officers were all redacted.
A Nov. 30 supplemental report was filed by Lt. Kevin Kinard of Walterboro Police.
“On the night in question, administration along with other officers with [the] Walterboro Police Department arrived at the incident location. It was soon discovered that during the foot pursuit, Officer [redacted] had discharged his firearm at an unknown suspect,” the supplemental report says, adding that SLED was called to investigate and Walterboro officers remained on scene.
It remains unclear whether the man who was being pursued was ever identified by law enforcement.
While the public has been left in the dark about what exactly occurred in Walterboro the night of Nov. 24, SLED has yet to answer multiple follow-up questions.
“Every time a police department hides behind the notion that they can’t tell you anything, that police department is diminishing its credibility, and I think as a consequence, its respect in the community,” Bender said.
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