Crime & Public Safety

Bluffton police officer resigns after excessive force allegation. It wasn’t the first claim

A police officer who showed a pattern of using excessive force — and was hired by the Bluffton Police Department last year while on probation with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office — resigned in early July, days after an internal investigation found he did not properly de-escalate an incident in Old Town and subsequently lied to investigators.

Since September 2015, Johnathon Bates, 38, had been investigated four times for the way he dealt with citizens. Three of those incidents involved Bates physically pulling or shoving a handcuffed, intoxicated man, according to Bluffton Police and Sheriff’s Office files.

Two of the four investigations found Bates in violation of department policies.

Bates, who had been with the Bluffton department since July 2017, submitted his handwritten resignation July 6, according to his personnel file.

Interim Police Chief Scott Chandler said Bates’ letter did not offer a reason for the resignation.

On July 10, Chandler told The Island Packet the investigation involving Bates in connection with the incident in the Promenade in Old Town had recently concluded. Both Chandler and town attorney Terry Finger declined then to provide more information.

Attempts to contact Bates for comment were unsuccessful.

The newspaper obtained Bates’ personnel file and documents relating to the internal investigations from the Bluffton Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office through open-records requests.

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The latest investigation

The Bluffton incident happened March 16 outside bars on Promenade Street and involved an intoxicated person.

Bates and three other officers were on the scene.

While the officers waited for a transport vehicle to take the suspect to jail, he was held in handcuffs and stood at the front of a patrol car.

While Bates was searching the man, the suspect grabbed Bates’ hand a number of times, the internal investigation report said.

Bates told the suspect “if he continued to grab his hand ... he would hurt him,” according to the report.

The grabbing continued until the suspect allegedly kicked Bates in the groin, the report said.

Dashcam footage shows Bates grabbing the suspect’s left shoulder and pushing him off the hood of the car. The fall resulted in the suspect breaking his nose, the report said.

The investigation into the incident began May 29.

After conducting interviews, reviewing reports, and watching videos, investigators wrote “there are some levels of concerns with Officer J. Bates.”

The investigation listed four facts specific to Bates:

On two separate occasions, Bates told the suspect if he grabbed his hand again he would hurt him.

Despite completing de-escalation training with the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in July 2016 — which includes training on “dealing with someone who is non-compliant” and “maintaining a professional demeanor” — Bates said the department’s Use of Force Policy does not define de-escalation.

During an interview, Bates told investigators he and the suspect “slipped off the hood and fell to the ground.” Dashcam footage from the scene captured Bates telling another officer the suspect kicked him so he “took him to the ground.”

Bates’ initial report documenting the incident was “very basic” and only a paragraph long. His supervisor told him to include more detail. The second report did and described the entire incident leading up to the use of force.

The internal investigation found Bates in violation of the department’s Response to Resistance procedure where “an officer must attempt to control all situations in which he/she is involved and must attempt to control them by de-escalating the need for any type of response to resistance.”

It also found Bates violated the department’s Code of Conduct which says “employees shall not knowingly make false statements to, or withhold information from supervisory personnel or Internal Affairs when questioned, interviewed, or in submitting statements or reports.”

The final report from the investigation was sent to Chandler for review on July 2.

Four days later, before a ruling could be issued, Bates resigned.

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A prior use of force investigation

In June, there was another investigation involving Bates and the use of force.

The investigation involved prisoner treatment. The complaint was found to be without merit.

The incident happened on Oct. 29, 2017, at the Bluffton Police Department when Bates and another officer were handling a suspect who had been arrested for driving under the influence, according to the internal investigation report.

In June of this year, another officer saw the report Bates wrote about that incident and questioned whether the suspect should have been charged with resisting arrest since he was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car at the time, the report said.

Both Bates and the other officer on the scene told the suspect he needed to get out of the car. The suspect refused and told the officers he didn’t want to take a breathalyzer test and just wanted to go to jail.

The other officer continued telling the suspect to get out of the car when Bates “moved him aside, grabbed the suspect and pulled him out of the vehicle,” the report said.

The suspect fell to the ground and injured his shoulder, the report said.

Investigators wrote there was no policy violation because both officers “attempted to use de-esclation methods” by telling the suspect to get out of the car, the report said.

Another note in the report said the 14th Circuit solicitor’s office reviewed the case and dismissed the resisting arrest charge.

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Investigations at the Sheriff’s Office

Prior to working with the Bluffton department, Bates had worked for the Sheriff’s Office twice — between June 2006 and June 2017.

The first time he worked there was from June 2006 to December 2007. He resigned after 18 months to pursue full-time work in ministry, according to his resignation letter.

Chief Deputy Michael M. Hatfield marked “Yes” under the “Would you rehire?” question on Bates’ personnel change/action authorization form.

Bates returned to the Sheriff’s Office in February 2014.

During his second tenure, he faced an internal investigation in September 2015 after a man complained Bates harassed him. That complaint was found to be unsubstantiated.

Two years later, on May 9, 2017, Bates was put on a six-month probation for use of force, according to a Sheriff’s Office disciplinary action form.

In the May 1, 2017, incident, Bates and an inmate he was booking into the Beaufort County Detention Center were arguing over the what charges the man was facing.

The inmate — who was intoxicated and handcuffed behind his back — moved toward Bates.

Bates stepped toward him and struck him in the neck area, the investigation report said.

The inmate fell backward to the ground.

Detention center officers stepped between the men, and one of them escorted Bates out of the booking area.

“(The inmate) fell to the floor, which was probably due more to his massive intoxication than to my self defense efforts,” Bates wrote in his statement on the incident.

The officer who escorted Bates away wrote that “(Bates) stated to me that (the detention officers) did not get (the inmate) out of his face. I explained to Officer Bates that he should not have engaged in an argument with (the inmate) antagonizing him.”

The inmate did not have any “identifying wounds,” but his neck was slightly red, according to another report about the incident.

After receiving notification he would be put on six-months probation and Sheriff P.J. Tanner recommending Bates complete remedial training in use of force, Bates wrote a letter to Tanner.

“I fail to see how not allowing myself to be victimized by a drunk, angry, murderer is (poor judgment),” Bates wrote in the letter.

He wrote that he wholeheartedly disagreed with his supervisors that he “should have used better judgment” and had other options than palm-striking the man.

“One might say that another tactic, strike, or take down would have been preferable or appropriate, and there is a time and place for that discussion,” Bates wrote. “However ... the ‘type’ of force I use is at my discretion.”

Bates had submitted his application to the Bluffton Police Department on May 13, while he was on probation with the Sheriff’s Office. He interviewed for the job on May 31, and was hired July 6, according to his application.

Documents in Bates’ Bluffton police personnel file show then-chief Joseph Manning knew Bates was on probation with the Sheriff’s Office and was aware of the specifics of the shoving incident at the detention center.

Bates resigned from the Sheriff’s Office on June 21, 2017, saying he had accepted a job with the Bluffton department, according to his resignation letter.

This time, Hatfield marked “No” under the “Would you rehire?” question.

Bates’ hiring was not the first time Bluffton Police had hired a former Sheriff’s Office deputy with issues.

In April, The Island Packet reported on the hiring of former Sheriff’s Office deputy Selena Nelson, despite knowing she was fired by the sheriff after being accused of lying.

She also had been stripped of her law enforcement certification at the time.

The S.C. Criminal Justice Academy panel later decided Nelson was not guilty of misconduct while in uniform in a Bluffton store in July and let her keep her certification.

She still works at the department.

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