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Critics seek clearer guidelines for police shooting probes in South Carolina

SLED (File)

State police investigated all but one officer-involved shooting in South Carolina in 2018. And the one they weren't called out for was the deadliest encounter of all.

A state senator doesn't want to see that happen again. Sen. Gerald Malloy says all shootings in South Carolina that involve law enforcement officers should be reviewed by state authorities.

The case that sparked the legislation happened last October, when five law enforcement officers were wounded and two were killed after a suspect opened fire on them at a home in Florence County. County deputies had gone to the home on Oct. 3 to serve a warrant in a child sexual assault case when a suspect opened fire on them from a second-story window.

During the firefight , a SWAT team and other agents from the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) were headed to the scene to assist, but Florence County Sheriff's Office called them off, according to SLED spokesman Thom Berry. Then Florence County Sheriff Kenney Boone without explanation turned the investigation over to Richland County — 60 miles (97 kilometers) from the crime scene — rather than SLED.

Boone did not respond to a request for an interview. But he said the time Richland County deputies had the expertise and equipment to conduct a thorough investigation.

Boone also has a history with SLED.

State agents investigated messages he left last summer with county officials who questioned his expenses. Prosecutors at the state Attorney General's office reviewed SLED's report and determined while the messages were unprofessional, rude, and could be interpreted as threats, no crime was committed.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott fought previous bills that would require SLED to investigate his officers if they fire on suspects. He said he has an advisory council of citizens that can review shootings and dispute the findings of investigators.

A spokeswoman for Lott said the Florence County incident isn't a routine police shooting case.

"We did not classify the Florence County shooting as an officer-involved shooting. It was a murder; a premeditated mass shooting against the officers. We investigated it as such," said Capt. Maria Yturria.

Many states lack a law specifying which agency investigates police shootings, said Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green University. Wisconsin and New Jersey, however, adopted specific guidelines after a rash of high profile killings.

Among the largest cities in the U.S. and Canada, 49 percent report having their own agencies investigate shootings by their officers, according to a 2018 report by the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Stinson said independent investigations with set guidelines reduce the appearance of impropriety, but that many jurisdictions resist because "police chiefs and county sheriffs are sometimes very territorial and want to take care of things on their own."

Since the beginning of 2014, there have been 231 police shootings in South Carolina. Local agencies have asked SLED agents to investigate all but eight of them. The only agencies to not ask for SLED's help were Richland County and Florence County, Berry said.

The widow of one of the officers killed in Florence County said there was "chaos" during the investigation. She said she believed the county lacked the experience to handle such a case and said neither the victims nor their families got get the help or the information they needed.

"It felt like we got pushed aside because of confusion or complications about the investigation," Allison Carraway said at a public hearing on Malloy's proposal. Her husband, Florence city police Sgt. Terrence Callaway, was killed, as was Florence County Sheriff's Investigator Farrah Turner.

Turner's family issued a statement in response to Allison Carraway's remarks, saying their experience with investigators doesn't reflect hers.

Carraway says she still has scores of questions - from an explanation as to why SLED isn't leading the investigation into her husband's death - to a timeline of what happened from when he arrived on the scene, to how he was shot, to how long it took to get him medical help.

"I simply want an explanation," Carraway said. "I think that is something we deserve."

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