Review: 80 state troopers have been disciplined several times

COLUMBIA -- Eighty current state troopers including several seen in recent high-profile videos engaging in questionable behavior have been disciplined at least twice since 2003, a review by The State newspaper has found.

Department of Public Safety records, obtained under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, show that over the past five years:

• Two troopers have been disciplined seven times each for improper conduct including using profanity to motorists or speaking to jurors during a trial or breaking other department rules. Neither received more than a suspension.

• One trooper with at least four infractions was rehired after being accused of giving false information about an accident involving a patrol car.

• Troopers in slightly more than half of the 207 cases received the lightest punishment possible -- counseling -- for violations, including being in at-fault car wrecks with patrol cars or speaking rudely to motorists. Suspensions were given in 16 cases.

Under current policy, troopers with at least three sanctions in certain categories such as failing to follow departmental rules or improper conduct can face suspension or firing.

Tolerating bad behavior

But several aspects of the policy allow some sanctions not to be counted in the total number. Violations that result in mandatory counseling, for example, are not counted at all and letters of reprimand aren't included after a year or two.

Lawmakers critical of the Highway Patrol have said its leaders tolerated bad behavior, allowing "a Rambo, cowboy attitude" to "run rampant."

Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, the Legislative Black Caucus chairman, said it's no coincidence that troopers at the center of some of the most high-profile cases had prior disciplinary problems.

"I don't feel they believed there were going to be any real consequences to their actions," he said.

The issue came to a head in February, when the governor forced two top Department of Public Safety officials to step down after dashboard camera videos showed troopers engaging in dubious behavior.

'Too big'

New Department of Public Safety Director Mark Keel said he was troubled by The State's findings.

"Why did someone have incident after incident, and they were not suspended? I don't know," he said Friday. "When I see a police officer with six or seven disciplinary actions, it requires you to look deeper at those folks than someone who has just one."

Keel, an attorney and former chief of staff at the State Law Enforcement Division, said he probably cannot give out harsher sanctions for past infractions by repeat offenders.

But for the most serious offenders, he said, "It wouldn't surprise me that they will be brought in and told, 'I want you to understand you don't have any chances left.' "

At his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, Keel said his immediate priority would be to review the department's disciplinary policy. Keel said Friday there are "things I want to look at very thoroughly," but he needs more time before making any final decisions.

Most of the approximately 1,000 working troopers "do their jobs every day and do it professionally," Keel said. But, he added, the percentage of troopers with repeat violations is "too big."

"I'm taking an active role in all the (disciplinary) cases it's not just the serious cases," he said. "I intend to continue that until such time I'm comfortable with that, and everybody knows where we're going."

'Fair and effective'

Ousted department director James Schweitzer told The State last week that he had worked for a "fair and effective" disciplinary process.

"All disciplinary actions taken or not taken received serious deliberation and were carried out in the hopes that those actions would deter future transgressions," he said in a prepared statement.

Under a progressive disciplinary system, punishments are tied to the number of prior violations in a particular category the more previous infractions, the stiffer the punishment.

Charlie Sheppard, the patrol's chief attorney, told The State that Schweitzer changed the policy to require that a "Level II" reprimand be counted for two years as part of a trooper's total number of sanctions, instead of the previous one year.

Schweitzer also changed another policy that had allowed troopers to request that records of less-serious "Level I" reprimands be removed from their personnel files after one year, Sheppard said.

However, after one year, "Level I" reprimands automatically are not counted toward the total number of sanctions against a trooper, Sheppard said, and violations that result in mandatory counseling sessions aren't counted at all.

In his statement, Schweitzer said his review of the data obtained by The State showed only 27 troopers had "multiple, non-counseling disciplinary actions taken against them."

Thirteen of the most serious repeat offenders could have faced suspension or termination for having at least three violations in certain categories if the policy included infractions that led to required counseling in the total number of sanctions.

Resigned Highway Patrol commander Col. Russell Roark declined comment last week.

Caught on tape

In one of the highest-profile cases, Lance Cpl. Steve Garren is seen on a video striking a black suspect who was fleeing on foot in Greenwood County with his patrol car June 24, 2007. Garren was indicted this month on a federal charge of violating the suspect's civil rights; he is scheduled to be arraigned this week on the charge.

Schweitzer gave Garren a two-day suspension for that incident. Keel has directed interim patrol commander Col. Harry Stubblefield to place Garren on unpaid suspension pending his criminal case.

Garren is among at least four troopers seen in recently released videos who have two or more prior disciplinary actions since Jan. 1, 2003.

Multiple violators

Two current troopers, Thomas Moon and Larry Vanicek, top the repeat-offender list with seven violations each, department records show.

Moon, who is assigned to the Highway Patrol region based in Greenville, was ordered to undergo counseling or received "Level I" letters of reprimand for:

• Two at-fault property-damage accidents;

• Failing to properly document or video traffic stops;

• Failing to notify his supervisor when he took sick leave; and

• Talking to jurors during a trial

Vanicek, who works in the Orangeburg-based Highway Patrol region:

• Received a "Level II" reprimand in 2007 for assisting in a chase without a supervisor's permission;

• Received a "Level I" reprimand in 2007 for accusing the friend of a traffic violator who was in a separate vehicle with interfering with his duties; and

• Was ordered to undergo counseling for using profanity and being "rude and unprofessional" in separate traffic incidents, and for failing to turn in bond money.

Efforts last week to reach Vanicek and Moon were unsuccessful.