Opinion

State trooper abuses

The recent release of new videos showing South Carolina state troopers kicking and hitting suspects provides more evidence that the resignations of two top law-enforce-ment officials was justified. Now, the question is whether the Highway Patrol has purged the department of rogue troopers and taken sufficient steps to ensure these incidents don't happen again.

Three new videos were released last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The State newspaper. They show separate incidents in 2006 in which troopers were investigated to determine whether they had used excessive force against motorists who had fled when pursued by troopers.

A trooper involved in one of the incidents was found to have been assigned to Gov. Mark Sanford's security detail. Sanford, who was not involved in choosing troopers for the detail, had the trooper reassigned.

Last month, Department of Public Safety director Jim Schweitzer and Col. Russell Roark, who headed the Highway Patrol, tendered their resignations after accusations that they had been too lenient on an officer who used a racial slur during an arrest. The incident occurred during a routine traffic stop in Greenwood County in 2004. A video shows a man fleeing from the scene while the trooper is heard off-camera yelling: "You better run, n--, because I'm fixin' to kill you."

Sanford decided to ask for Schweitzer's and Roark's resignations after viewing the tape with members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who had brought it to his attention.

The three videos released last week were equally disturbing. They not only raise questions about why the troopers involved weren't fired but also why they weren't charged with assault.

In one of the tapes, a trooper -- the one later assigned to Sanford's security detail -- is seen striking a man with his hands and a flashlight seven times after he and other troopers pulled him out of the passenger side of a fleeing car. The passenger, who is black, was handcuffed, questioned -- and then released after it was determined that he was not wanted for any crimes and had not violated any laws during the pursuit.

In another tape, a trooper is seen kicking a truck driver at least seven times in and around the head after the man stepped out of his truck and lay on the ground with his hands behind his head. Troopers had been pursuing the truck for several miles, but the driver offered no resistance.

A third trooper was accused of hitting a suspect in the face with the barrel of a shotgun. The video, however, does not offer a clear view of the incident.

Two of the troopers involved were reprimanded, and one resigned. But none were fired.

Department spokesman Sid Gaulden noted that the videos should be viewed in the context that troopers make about 500,000 traffic stops every year, and these three incidents are not representative of the typical trooper. That is a valid point.

Unfortunately, however, these incidents, whether isolated or not, taint the entire department. Furthermore, the failure of higher authorities to adequately punish the troopers involved raises questions as to whether similar incidents have been ignored in the past.

It is unfair to assume that the behavior of a few troopers indicates widespread abuses in the department. But if the Highway Patrol wants to squelch those rumors and restore full confidence in the department, it needs to clean house and demonstrate that the actions seen on these videos no longer will be tolerated.

These troopers shouldn't simply have been reprimanded; they should have been charged and tried for what amounts to criminal behavior.

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