Justice Probes S.C. for Civil Rights Violations

Advisory: This broadcast contains language that may be offensive to some listeners.

The Justice Department has begun a civil rights investigation of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. In recent weeks, a series of videos has surfaced showing highway patrol officers using racial slurs and striking African-American suspects with their patrol cars.

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In South Carolina, another video surfaced this week in a controversy that has led to allegations of racism at the state highway patrol. Five videos have now come to life - shot from dashboard cameras in patrol cars. They showed troopers treating African-Americans in a manner that South Carolina's governor called absolutely intolerable. The incidents have caused two state officials their jobs and led to both federal and state investigations.

NPR's Adam Hochberg has more from Columbia and a warning: His report does include some offensive language.

ADAM HOCHBERG: The videos are blurred and grainy, but their ramifications are clearly felt in a state that's still trying to shake off the vestiges of segregation. They show a series of traffic stops and chases over the past few years. In each, the suspects are African-American and the situation is tense.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #1: Put your hands on the car. Put your hands on the damn car.

HOCHBERG: There's this recording of a traffic stop along a rural road. A white trooper pulls over a car and finds drugs and a handgun inside. When a passenger tries to run, the trooper shouts a racial slur.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man #1: You better run, nigga, because I'm going to kill you.

HOCHBERG: A second video shows an officer using a taser to subdue an unarmed African-American woman who is acting belligerent during a traffic stop.

In another, a trooper handcuffs a black woman to the bumper of a car and leaves her alone on a dark highway. And in this video, a trooper in his car chases an African-American suspect who was running away. The patrol car strikes the man…

(Soundbite of police siren)

HOCHBERG: …then the trooper boast to a colleague about hitting him.

(Soundbite of police siren)

Unidentified Man #2: You would…

Unidentified Man #3: Well, I hit him (unintelligible). I wish…

Unidentified Man #2: You hit him?

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, I hit him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: I finally hit him.

HOCHBERG: The troopers in four of these incidents were disciplined with punishment ranging from reprimands to suspensions. The fifth case remains under investigation. But as the videos became public after inquiries from state legislators on the news media, many South Carolinians expressed outrage the punishment weren't harsher.

Republican Governor Mark Sanford declared the trooper's behavior inexcusable and ousted both the head of the highway patrol and the state director of Public Safety, and African-American leaders want the troopers' cases re-examined.

State Representative LEON HOWARD (Chairman, South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus): At minimum, they all should have been fired, but there's one or two that should be prosecuted, indicted and put in jail.

HOCHBERG: State Representative Leon Howard chairs South Carolina's Legislative Black Caucus and says the videos show a highway patrol that hasn't emerged from the past. In four of the five cases, the officer is white, and Howard alleges that's part of a pattern.

State Rep. HOWARD: Racial profiling in the state is very much alive, particularly with the highway patrol. These are just a few incidents. There are lot of them that's been going on for years. Look what they're doing on under the video, or dash cameras, whatever they are. What were they doing before?

HOCHBERG: In part because a pressure from the black caucus, the U.S. Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation while state prosecutors now are considering criminal charges against the troopers.

Reggie Lloyd, the head of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division concedes the outcome of those investigations will play a critical role in restoring the reputation both of the highway patrol and the state as a whole.

Mr. REGGIE LLOYD (Chief, South Carolina Law enforcement Division): Unfortunately, too many times when we make the national news, it's in a bad light, and you know, we are trying to do better. We want to be seen as a progressive, enlightened state. And these types of incidents don't help us.

HOCHBERG: The officers involved in the incidents have not spoken publicly. But some people close to the highway patrol have come to their defense. Steve Sulligan is a retired trooper who says the controversy has been blown out of proportion. He notes the officer who shouted the racial slur was a 14-year veteran with no known history of similar behavior.

Mr. STEVE SULLIGAN (Retired State Trooper): I don't condone what he said because that was wrong. But, you know, I tell people: Unless you've walked on our shoes and you went out there on the back road at two o'clock in the morning, you know, sometimes you have to raise your voice, maybe say something that the average person at home goes, oh my god, that's so terrible, which, you know, it's a terrible world I hear on the road being a police officers.

HOCHBERG: A highway patrol spokesman says the agency welcomes the investigations, which it believes will reveal no pattern of racial profiling. It says the incidents represent just five problems out of more than two million roadside stops over the past four years.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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