Controversial, yet effective: Why the sheriff’s office allows for warning shots when few others do

Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 8:01 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 18, 2022 at 5:33 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The belief in law enforcement about warning shots has generally been that they pose too great a risk to be allowed; But there is one agency in the Lowcountry that does approve of its use in rare circumstances: The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.

It is unique among its peers.

Police departments in Charleston, North Charleston, Mount Pleasant as well as the Berkeley and Dorchester County Sheriff’s Offices have strict policies in place that forbid the use of warning shots.

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies’ (CALEA) policy states “[g]enerally warning shots should be prohibited due to the potential for harm.”

In Charleston County, they are allowed if deadly force is warranted. It is also in line with the National Consensus policy on Use of Force from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), which states that warning shots are “inherently dangerous” and must only be used when deadly force is justified, among other restrictions.

Last week, Deputy Hank Carter fired a warning shot following a pursuit of three suspects in a stolen car after he found himself in a precarious situation between two suspects, one of who he believed was reaching for a gun at the time.

Immediately following the shot aimed at the ground, he wrote in his narrative, it had “an immediate positive effect, whereas both suspects immediately stopped and surrendered.”

“A good scenario and a good day for us is when our troops go home safely and the person that was causing harm in the community is safely put into a place where they can’t cause any more harm,” Sheriff Kristin Graziano said. “A great day is when they never have to pull their weapon in the first place. This was a good day. "

Graziano says this has been the department’s policy since at least 2004.

“That’s just a lot of trust to put in your officers, especially when you’re in charge of a larger agency,” Kyle McLean, an assistant professor of criminology at Clemson University, said.

He says prior to the policy reforms of the 1970s, warning shots were standard practice in law enforcement.

Supreme Court cases, such as Tennessee v. Garner (1985) and Graham v. Connor (1989) which restricted use-of-force led us to where we are today.

“Most shots in a deadly force situation are going to miss their target,” McLean said. “So, to add on to that the fact that you’re not even aiming at a target but are just aiming somewhere else means that there is a deadly projectile flying through the air and you have to be really confident where it’s going to hit or it might hurt someone inadvertently that you don’t mean to hurt.”

When asked about the policy and its controversial history, Graziano pointed to an article produced by the Department of Justice in 1998. While it did highlight that warning shots are debated, they also could be effective as was the case during the pursuit earlier this month, she noted.

Though it is included in its policy, Sheriff Graziano said that specifics on how to fire a warning shot are not covered in the department’s basic training.

“We don’t teach warning shots and we don’t teach deadly force,” she said. “We teach shoot, no shoot scenarios. We can’t possibly think of every scenario that an officer would encounter. We can just hope we give them the best tools necessary to make the right decision.”

Mclean says the practice is once again up for debate in light of highly publicized and criticized deadly police encounters.

Some departments have adopted a “shoot-to-wound” policy to limit bloodshed, but Graziano says that would not be added to the policies at the sheriff’s office.

Use of force policies is rarely backed up by data to support if they are effective or not, according to criminology experts.

“Part of the problem in policing is that we do a lot of stuff based on what’s a good idea as opposed to what actually works,” McLean said.

The sheriff’s office says they have no plans to make any changes to the policy at this time.