Local law enforcement agencies give officers wide discretion on how to handle traffic stops, a review of department guidelines from various agencies show.
“We’ve researched best practices around the country, and there is no one individual way to do traffic stops,” S.C. Criminal Justice Academy traffic safety program instructor Dale Smith said. “There are always so many factors that go in each stop.”
The way officers handle traffic stops will be an important part of the investigation into a Dec. 9 traffic stop that injured a deputy and left a motorist wounded by police gunfire.
Officials agree there are too many variables involved to have rigid rules in place.
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“Traffic stops are so unpredictable,” Michael Ricks, a former police chief and current criminal justice instructor at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, said recently. “Officers have to have latitude for discretion.”
The S.C. Law Enforcement Division is investigating the circumstances surrounding the shooting at Tanger Outlets 2 when a traffic stop outside the greater Bluffton mall resulted in Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Raymond Heroux being dragged by a car and the driver, Akeem Jenkins, being shot.
How Heroux wound up in a position to be dragged by Jenkins’ car remains unclear — as does the question of whether any Sheriff’s Office policies were violated during the lead up to that event.
While the Sheriff’s Office has provided The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette with a copy of its General Orders Manual, portions that could directly relate to the incident were redacted. The agency says it is protecting the integrity of the SLED investigation, though that contradicts a SLED spokesman, who says the agency has no problem with the Sheriff’s Office releasing any information.
Former South Carolina Press Association attorney and media law expert Jay Bender disagreed with the decision to redact portions of the manual, saying it could lead to the perception “they are trying to hide information that could indicate policies were violated” during the Jenkins shooting.
Unredacted policy guidelines provided by the Beaufort Police Department, the Bluffton Police Department and the S.C. Highway Patrol provide a window into the methods behind traffic stops, notably the priority placed on officer safety and the need for discretion during stops.
“Officer safety is the number one concern,” according to the Beaufort Police Department’s General Orders Manual.
The Highway Patrol’s Manual of Operations echoes that and gives troopers a great deal of leeway to ensure safety.
The very first sentence of the agency’s guidelines reads: “In an effort to reduce collisions, injuries and fatalities, every method, practice and technique must be utilized.”
In fact, the Highway Patrol has a policy directive — used to supplement its manual — that speaks to the use of “professional and impartial” discretion but reminds officers they will be held accountable for the decisions they make.
Smith said all South Carolina law enforcement trainees spend hours, both in the classroom and in outside drills, practicing “getting comfortable with handling situations and making split-second decisions.”
Despite providing officers a wide berth on discretion, conduct manuals —including the redacted Sheriff’s Office manual — do offer detailed guidelines to help keep officers, potential suspects and bystanders safe during stops.
Because of the ongoing investigation and the lack of details surrounding the stop of Jenkins — who, after the shooting, was reportedly found to have at least 10 grams of cocaine on his person — it is difficult to determine whether Heroux used proper discretion when he pulled Jenkins over in the parking lot of a popular holiday shopping destination.
But law enforcement policies do offer guidance that recommends against such a decision.
When conducting a stop, the Sheriff’s Office’s own manual suggests “avoid(ing) … areas where a large volume of spectators are likely to gather.”
Both the Bluffton and Beaufort police department policies recommend against pulling drivers over in business locations, while Highway Patrol guidelines urge only to avoid “hazardous” locations.
While specific details of Jenkins’ stop remain scant, Sheriff’s Office news releases have said that, at some point during the stop, Jenkins reversed his vehicle, and Heroux was “trapped in the open driver’s side door and dragged through the parking lot.”
The agency’s manual includes instructions on the use of backup while conducting high-risk or unknown vehicle stops. It is unclear whether Heroux considered the stop to be high-risk or knew the identity of the driver. Jenkins had been arrested before on local drug and weapons charges and has spent the past four years in and out of the justice system.
Sheriff’s Office policy advises that deputies “should not individually initiate high-risk vehicle stops unless back-up units will not be available in an appropriate amount of time or the urgency of the situation demands immediate action.”
The Sheriff’s Office has indicated that Sgt. Selena Nelson witnessed the Tanger incident and followed on foot as the vehicle moved but has not made clear whether Nelson arrived before Heroux approached Jenkins’ vehicle.
Ricks, who previously led police departments in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Moss Point, Miss., said in his experience, “if the driver of the car is wanted or has a criminal history, (an officer) may want to wait for backup” before approaching the vehicle.
Officers are permitted by law to use deadly force — including shooting a subject — but there are policies that dictate when that type of action is appropriate, namely “only when a (deputy) reasonably believes such action is in defense of human life, including the deputy’s own life, or in defense of any person in immediate danger of serious physical injury or death,” according to the Sheriff’s Office manual.
There are further restrictions on use of deadly force that may be pertinent to the Jenkins shooting.
Sheriff’s Office policies direct deputies “not (to) discharge a firearm from or at a moving vehicle unless the deputy reasonably believes the occupants of the vehicle are about to use deadly force against the deputy or another person.”
Smith said training on the appropriate use of deadly force “is repeated over and over again” when officers are at the criminal justice academy.
Regardless of the specifics of agency, Ricks said officers are taught to use deadly force only as a last resort.
“The goal is to have everyone survive the traffic stop and to make sure everyone goes home at the end of the day,” he said.
“I pulled (my service weapon) a few times in my career, but I never had to shoot it — and I’m glad for that,” he said. “But deadly force comes with the job.”