By Gregory Yee, Post and Courier
A police officer is killed and another is injured during a shootout with a suspect in Myrtle Beach in early October.
A few week later, a Greenville County deputy is killed in a crash that followed a traffic stop gone wrong.
For State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and other South Carolina law enforcement leaders, these kind of incidents are always cause for alarm, and data shows violence against officers is on the rise.
According to recently released SLED statistics, aggravated assaults against officers increased by 20.6 percent in 2019 compared with 2018. With 316 such incidents, last year recorded the highest number of the past decade.
These upticks come as officers increasingly report feeling threatened and demoralized. But in an unprecedented year that’s seen a global pandemic beat down communities and civil unrest sparked by outcry against police brutality sweep the nation, civilians, too, say they feel under attack.
“I’ve always said we have to work in our communities,” Keel said. “We can’t wait until we have a tragic incident to build those relationships. Some of the criticism we get is deserved, but most of it is not. Most officers are out there doing their jobs. … We have to show that we’re real people and we’re out there trying to protect the community.”
In Charleston, authorities and community activists alike say they hope to restore balance and trust between officers and the communities they serve. They point to progress made in 2019 during the Charleston police racial bias audit and say they hope that everyone is willing to come back to the table and continue the work necessary to build a better future.
A worrying trend
Nationwide, officers are seeing more violence overall, Keel said. There’s more guns and more people who are willing to challenge authority.
The chief said when he started at SLED in 1979, he very rarely encountered someone who threatened agents with a gun.
“Today, everybody we arrest has a gun,” he said. “We’ve got to work very hard to de-escalate the situation.”
The two recent incidents in Myrtle Beach and Greenville County are like case studies of the highest-risk situations officers face.
In Myrtle Beach, city police were responding to a domestic disturbance call and exchanged shots with the suspect during a confrontation, according to SLED, which is investigating the shooting. One officer, Jacob Hancher, died and another was injured. The suspect also died.
Disturbance calls account for some of the riskiest situations officers face. SLED’s data shows that in the last 10 years, 22 percent, or two out of nine, of law enforcement murders happened while the officer was responding to such calls.
Similarly, 23 percent of aggravated assaults against officers happened during a disturbance call — a call category that accounted for 38 percent of the simple assaults suffered by South Carolina officers over the last decade, SLED’s data shows.
The incident that led to the death of Greenville County sheriff’s Sgt. Conley Jumper began as a traffic stop.
According to SLED, which is investigating the case, the suspect was fighting with deputies who were trying to take him into custody.
As Jumper helped with the arrest, the suspect, 37-year-old Ray L. Kelly, broke free, got back into his car and drove into oncoming traffic, according to SLED. The deputy got stuck somehow, couldn’t free himself and died when Kelly’s car crashed into an 18-wheeler.
According to SLED’s data, traffic stops and pursuits account for 11 percent of murders against law enforcement, 17 percent of aggravated assaults and 5 percent of simple assaults.
Data for 2020 has not yet been reviewed, and Keel said he was not able to provide any detailed, preliminary statistics for this year.
Speaking broadly, he was not optimistic about what this year’s police violence numbers are likely to show.
“Hopefully we can turn the tide on what we’re seeing,” Keel said. “2020, I’m afraid, isn’t going to look better.”
While officers struggle with the violence they face while on the job, communities across the country have been speaking out for years against the violence they suffer at the hands of law enforcement.
Arthur McFarland, co-president of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, said the nation has reached a critical juncture in the conversation surrounding criminal justice.
A retired municipal judge, McFarland believes it’s time for communities to recenter the discussion on what they expect from their law enforcement agencies so that officers can focus on what they do best — enforcing laws, investigating crimes and protecting people.
“Just in terms of our recent events, I believe it is even more imperative for us to have the direct conversation not just with the leadership but with line officers,” he said. “You’ve got to look at your work in light of the people you’re encountering. What we have to do is not raise officers to a level where they have lost their sense of what it means to be a (civilian).”
McFarland’s organization has been working for years, advocating on behalf of initiatives such as racial bias audits, which Charleston police completed last year and North Charleston police are slated to complete in the months ahead.
And the Justice Ministry is not the only organization to voice concerns over how Charleston area cops treat the communities they serve.
In the months since protests turned to rioting on May 30 in downtown Charleston, city police have come under increasing scrutiny for their tactics, which critics say involved use of unnecessary force and arrests of peaceful protesters at demonstrations on May 31 and beyond.
On Thursday, two organizations — the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina and South Carolina for Criminal Justice Reform — issued a joint statement reiterating their concerns over city and police officials’ assessment of the civil unrest and rioting.
Earlier this month, city officials released a preliminary after-action report. The 64-page document outlined insufficient planning, communications breakdowns and other factors that police said nearly overwhelmed officers the night of May 30.
The ACLU criticized the report, calling it an inadequate investigation that glossed over officers’ unjust actions toward peaceful protesters and deflected blame away from officers and onto civilians.
“Four months after (the Charleston Police Department) brutalized people protesting police brutality, the department sill refuses to hold itself accountable,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of the organization’s state chapter. “This willful neglect further undermines the community’s trust … and is yet another reminder that we must support local movement to redefine and reinvest in true public safety.”
Charleston Police Capt. Dustin Thompson said that the events of the last year have been stressful and strained department resources and officers, but the city’s police force is taking it in stride.
Because of what happened on May 30, police now respond to demonstrations as if they have the potential to escalate into rioting, Thompson said.
“We have to prepare for that scale of event again,” he said.
But the captain, who runs the office of Community Oriented Policing, said officers haven’t forgotten about the promises made during the racial bias audit last year, and still hope to build on that foundation.
“We have to listen and we have to adjust to what’s in front of us now,” Thompson said. “Even through COVID, through riots, through demonstrations, we have not lost sight that building community partnerships and problem solving are a top priority. Every officer understands we need to have a balanced approach.”
And the department is already looking toward the future, he said.
Each year, Charleston police adjust and update their training regimen as new laws are enacted and world events take place. Instructors always try to use incidents that can help illustrate lessons learned for officers.
“I anticipate 2021′s training is going to be about encountering a demonstrator or protester,” Thompson said. “That is disorderly conduct? What is brandishing a weapon? What is not? You’re constantly adapting.”
That ethos extends to the state level, as well.
Keel, who also chairs the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council, said the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy is adapting as fast as it can to the challenges posed by 2020.
Cadets get 42½ hours of training on implicit bias, de-escalation and other related topics, the SLED chief said.
“With the incidents this year, we’ve been very progressive at the academy in looking at all our training,” Keel said.
And the training doesn’t stop when an officer leaves the academy. To stay certified, all officers have to complete mandated annual training on these topics, he said.
Keel said he hopes communities and the law enforcement agencies can come together to help one another.
“We cannot do our job without our community’s help,” he said.