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Monday, October 6, 2014

The Trigger-Happy Trooper: An Unjustified Shooting

     At five o'clock in the evening of September 4, 2014, Levar Jones pulled his pickup truck into the parking lot of the Circle K gas station and convenience store just outside of Columbia, South Carolina. As Jones opened his door and stepped out of his vehicle to enter the store, a highway patrol car, its siren activated, pulled up alongside him. Trooper Sean Groubert had noticed that the 35-year-old black man had not been wearing his seat belt.

     In addressing Mr. Jones, Trooper Groubert said, "Can I see your license please?" Jones, anxious to comply with the officer, turned around and leaned into his truck to get his wallet out of the glove compartment. At that point, the 31-year-old trooper drew his gun and yelled, "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" Two seconds later, Trooper Groubert fired three shots at Jones who staggered back from his truck and raised his arms above his head. When the officer fired a fourth shot, Jone's wallet fell out of his right hand.

     "I just got my license," Jones said. "You said get my license."

     Trooper Groubert asked Jones to place his hands behind his back.

     "What did I do, sir?" Jones asked.

     "Are you hit?" the Trooper inquired.

     "I think so. I can't feel my leg. I don't know what happened. Why did you shoot me?"

     "Well, you dove headfirst back into your car…I'm telling you to get out of your car."

     Trooper Groubert had shot Levar Jones in the hip. The unarmed man was placed into an ambulance and taken to a nearby hospital where he was treated for his wound and later released.

     After viewing the trooper's dashboard video footage of the incident, State Public Safety Director Leroy Smith issued a statement that read: "Trooper Groubert reacted to a perceived threat where there was none." Ten days after the shooting, the public safety director fired Sean Groubert.

     The ex-trooper's lawyer, Barney Giese, told reporters that the shooting had been justified because his client had feared for his life and the safety of others.

     On September 24, 2014, a Richland County prosecutor charged Groubert with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. If convicted as charged, Groubert faced up to 20 years in prison. At his arraignment hearing held that night, the judge set the ex-trooper's bail at $75,000. Shortly after that, the suspect posted his bond and was released from custody.

     Sean Groubert was not an inexperienced police officer. He joined the South Carolina Highway Patrol in September 2005. In September 2009, he left the state police to become a deputy with the Richland County Sheriff's Office. He rejoined the highway patrol in July 2012.

     In August 2012, Groubert and another trooper chased down a motorist who drove away from a traffic stop. When the man fired shots at the officers, Groubert shot and wounded him. The shooter was convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison for 20 years.

     In recent years the rate of police-involved shootings in South Carolina has been on the rise. In 2011, police officers in the state shot 15 people, killing 9 of them. (According to my police-involved shooting study.) In 2012, there were 42 police-involved shootings, a significant increase. So far in 2014, South Carolina police officers have shot 35, killing 16. 

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