Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott | photo by Sean Rayford
The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has fired a deputy who shot a man during a traffic stop in April — one incident in a rising number of officer-involved shootings that occur in South Carolina each year.
Free Times has learned that Kirk Willis, a member of the county’s Drug Suppression Team, was fired last month after concerns were raised about his behavior by the solicitor and an internal sheriff’s department investigation.
On April 22, Willis pulled over then-21-year-old Ty Meek Payne, who he’d been following as part of a drug investigation. Other cops on the scene and two witnesses said Payne tried to hit the officer with his car, and Willis “fired several rounds at the suspect, who fled the scene,” according to an incident report. Willis hit the suspect in the arm.
In initial reports of the incident, Sheriff Leon Lott assured the public that his deputy had acted safely.
“All the shots were directed toward the suspect’s vehicle, so there was no danger to the community,” Lott told WIS in April. “Officers were very aware of the line of fire when he was firing his weapon. He was firing his weapon to eliminate the threat that was trying to kill him.”
But questions emerged about Willis’ conduct, particularly in a video of the incident that showed Willis shooting at a fleeing Payne. At least one shot appeared to be a “wild shot,” according to reports of the video. (Lott declined to release the video to Free Times, citing an ongoing criminal case against Payne.) Nor is it clear from the video, apparently, that Payne was even in a position to hit Willis with his car.
Lott asked the 5th Circuit solicitor to refer the case to a grand jury “to make sure there’s no questions,” he told Free Times.
The grand jury decided in mid-July that the deputy’s behavior didn’t meet the bar for criminal prosecution. But the solicitor still warned the sheriff that Willis had acted inappropriately.
“It is clear from the evidence in this case that Mr. Willis’ performance was substandard and potentially dangerous to not only the suspect, but to other law enforcement personnel and innocent bystanders,” wrote 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson in a letter to the sheriff. “The manner in which he performed his duties on April 22 is unacceptable.”
Lott then launched an internal investigation of Willis and presented the results to the department’s Citizens Advisory Council. Formed in 2001, the council is a diverse group of citizens that reviews citizen complaints and disciplinary actions against employees, and makes a recommendation on whether the department’s actions are justified.
“We made a recommendation that his conduct was wild and reckless — that because of bad judgment, he should not be on the force,” says Russel Anderson, a retired sergeant major who chairs the council.
Lott fired Willis on July 28.
Lott says he stands by the accounts he gave of the incident in April — he believes Payne tried to run over his deputy, and Willis was justified in firing at him.
However, he also says Willis didn’t meet the department’s own standards for safety, which is why the deputy was fired — though he declines to discuss details.
“We expect our officers to do everything in a very safe manner,” Lott says.
Free Times has been unable to contact Willis for comment.
Cops’ conduct is in the national spotlight as protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, where a white police officer recently shot and killed an unarmed black teenager.
Lott has criticized the Ferguson cops’ handling of the protests, saying the police are keeping information from the public and sowing distrust.
But it’s not lost on him that an officer-involved shooting prompted those protests.
So far in 2014, there’ve been 30 officer-involved shootings in South Carolina, according to State Law Enforcement Division statistics. An officer-involved shooting is any instance in which a cop fires a gun at someone, whether or not the person or the officer is harmed or killed.
There’ve been between 25 and 44 officer-involved shootings in the state each year since 2000. And since 2009, the general trend is upward, with a high of 44 officer-involved shootings in 2012.
One local incident that raised eyebrows was the 2013 shooting of Ajani Mitchell, who was killed by Columbia police after an altercation at his mother’s house. A coroner’s report showed Mitchell had been hit by several bullets in the back as he fled. The coroner’s office held an inquest, which exonerated the police officers involved.
South Carolina police conduct was in the spotlight again over the weekend, when a widely circulated cell phone video showed a Greenville County deputy punching a suspect over and over again in the back of the head and shocking him with a stun gun during an arrest inside a Wal-Mart. “He’s defenseless! Sir, please stop punching him!” yells someone in the background. The deputy has been suspended.
Ironically, a criminal case against Ty Meek Payne is still pending — which is why Lott would not release video of the incident to Free Times. Payne faces charges of attempted murder, marijuana possession and possession of a stolen pistol.
The solicitor’s office would not reveal whether Payne has an attorney.
Lott says he expects former deputy Willis will testify in the trial.
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