Troopers could face federal charges

COLUMBIA -- Investigations into the embattled S.C. Department of Public Safety could lead to criminal charges against troopers, outside monitoring of the agency and independent review of citizens' complaints, state and federal officials say.

Federal and state law enforcement authorities will meet for the first time as a group this week to determine the scope and direction of their probes, said Kevin McDonald, acting U.S. attorney for South Carolina.

McDonald declined to discuss specifics of videotapes obtained by The State newspaper showing Highway Patrol troopers engaging in questionable behavior, but said, "some I've reviewed are troubling."

"We're entering this meeting with an open mind to see what, if anything, is appropriate," McDonald said last week. "Certainly, our office would be involved with (investigating) any criminal acts and any civil rights violations."

McDonald said he and other authorities will decide whether to seek criminal charges in some incidents.

That's what happened in the case of a former Charleston County sheriff's deputy who pleaded guilty last week to a federal charge of excessive use of force against a suspect after a police chase.

No trooper in recent years has faced similar federal charges.

Six of eight trooper videotapes obtained by The State involved troopers using force. In one of them, a trooper repeatedly kicks a suspect in the head -- just what the Charleston deputy pleaded guilty to.

In four of the use-of-force cases, solicitors declined to bring state charges. It's unclear whether the other two cases were referred to local prosecutors.

If patterns of civil rights violations are found within the Highway Patrol -- a division of the S.C. Department of Public Safety -- the federal government could push for outside monitoring of the department.

Federal or state authorities have entered into formal agreements -- most of which required outside monitoring -- with 15 police agencies nationwide since the late 1990s, a review by The State newspaper found.

If it happened here, South Carolina would join New Jersey as the only state highway patrol agencies under federal oversight.

The New Jersey State Police has been under federal oversight for more than eight years. It was accused by federal authorities of systematically discriminating against black motorists.

Merrick Bobb, president of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization that has worked with police agencies under federal supervision, said there has "been an element" of racial discrimination in every federal case.

S.C. Department of Public Safety officials repeatedly have said any problems with troopers are isolated cases of misconduct. Some black lawmakers disagree.

One videotape that showed a white trooper using a racial slur against a fleeing black suspect during a 2004 Greenwood County traffic stop led Gov. Mark Sanford to force Department of Public Safety Director James Schweitzer and Highway Patrol commander Col. Russell Roark to resign Feb. 29.

McDonald's office, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division announced last month they would investigate the allegations after the release of two other squad-car videos showing troopers in separate incidents hitting fleeing suspects on foot with their patrol vehicles.

In addition, a special S.C. Senate Judiciary subcommittee also has launched an investigation.

Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, one of five panel members, told The State last week he plans to resurrect a bill he introduced several years ago. It would allow the state Criminal Justice Academy or another state agency to investigate serious complaints against any police officer, including state troopers.

"It would give the people out there a place to go and feel they were actually looking at it," said Knotts, a former Columbia police officer.

He added such a system would help take internal politics out of police agencies, something which he contends is rife within the Highway Patrol.

Excessive force?

In the only federal criminal case of its kind in recent years in South Carolina, a white former Charleston County sheriff's deputy pleaded guilty Tuesday to kicking a black motorist in the neck and head. The man was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground after a police chase last June.

"It's a significant case, and it does illustrate our office is committed to prosecuting these sorts of offenses," acting McDonald said.

Deputy Christopher Lanoue, 25, also was investigated, though not charged in federal court, in another incident in which he used a Taser to stun a mentally ill black man, McDonald said. He also kneed him after responding to a disturbance at a home, McDonald said.

A judge can consider that incident, though, when determining the severity of Lanoue's sentence, he said. Lanoue, who was fired from the sheriff's department, faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

McDonald said the charge against Lanoue was not race-based but rather was based on Joseph Jefferson's right to be "free from the use of unreasonable force."

Lanoue's attorney, Glenn Churchill of Charleston, declined to comment on specifics of either case when contacted last week. But he said federal prosecutors have agreed to recommend that pending state charges from the two cases be dropped in exchange for Lanoue's plea in the federal case.

McDonald would not say whether the Jefferson case is comparable to any of the trooper cases.

But one comparison is obvious.

In one of eight dashboard-camera videos obtained by The State, then-Lance Cpl. John Sawyer is seen kicking a truck driver at least seven times in the head area on May 2006 in Sumter County after the man was ordered out of a dump truck that was pursued for miles by officers on Interstate 95.

The video shows Sawyer immediately running up to the driver, Sergio Cardini, and repeatedly kicking him after the man was lying on the ground as ordered by officers.

Both Sawyer, who resigned during an internal affairs investigation, and Cardini, who was charged in the chase, are white.

The State Law Enforcement Division investigated Sawyer's actions, but 12th Circuit Solicitor Ed Clements declined to issue criminal charges against the trooper, internal affairs records show.

No reason was given in the files; efforts to reach Clements last week were unsuccessful.

Sawyer went to work for the Marion County Sheriff's Department after resigning from the Highway Patrol. A department spokeswoman said last week he was no longer employed there.

She referred further questions to Sheriff Mark Richardson, who could not be reached for comment.