COLUMBIA — A 70-year-old man who was shot and wounded this week by a York County deputy as he reached for his cane during a traffic stop was the ninth person shot by a law officer in South Carolina so far this year, state officials say, bringing the pace of police-involved shootings to more than one a week.
That would mark the highest rate of such shootings in South Carolina since state officials started keeping statistics in 1999.
Whether the figure is bucking or following national trends is not clear however, because the FBI and other federal agencies don’t keep statistics on the number of police shootings across the U.S.
That prevents researchers such as University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert from being able to figure out if police officers are shooting more because they face more danger, or they are more likely to fire their weapons before the threat to them is fully known. They don’t know if the shootings are by rookies or officers with decades of experience.
“There aren’t good statistics available. We can’t tell what is unfolding,” said Alpert, who testifies about proper police tactics across the country.
State agents are investigating Tuesday night’s shooting of Bobby Canipe by a York County deputy on a four-lane highway near Clover. Canipe (kah-NYP’) was heading home to Lincolnton, N.C., with a 74-year-old female friend after they attended the Daytona 500 in Florida, friends said.
The deputy pulled Canipe over around 7:30 p.m. because he had an expired license plate. Canipe got out of his pickup and reached into his truck bed. The deputy fired several shots because he thought Canipe was reaching for a rifle, authorities said. Instead, Canipe was grabbing his cane that friends said he needed to walk.
Bobby Hoyle and Canipe attend church together and arrange a barbecue every year to raise money to feed needy families. Hoyle said Canipe is an Army veteran who drove trucks until his health took him from behind the wheel and to a job as a dispatcher. Hoyle has never known Canipe to get in trouble.
“He was just reaching for his cane. Policemen, I know they’ve got a tough job. It just seemed like a misunderstanding,” Hoyle said.
Family members have declined to comment.
Canipe was hit once, but is expected to survive. The York County Sheriff’s Office won’t say if deputy Terrance Knox, 24, on the force less than three years, said anything to Canipe before firing. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the shooting and will turn its findings over to prosecutors, who will determine if any criminal charges should be filed.
“We don’t make any conclusions or any recommendations,” said SLED spokesman Thom Berry, stressing that there is no clear timetable on when an investigation might be complete. “We normally investigate only the shooting incident itself, unless the requesting agency asks us to investigate the entire event.”
Deputies were involved in a shooting last month while providing cover for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers serving a warrant on James William Lewis, an armed robbery suspect, at a home in Fort Mill.
Lewis, authorities say, hid in an upstairs bedroom. When Officer Shane Page walked inside, he shot the officer, who returned fire, hitting Lewis in the leg. Three York County Sheriff’s deputies provided officers with cover as they exchanged fire with Lewis before eventually taking him into custody. None of those deputies fired their weapons, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
In September 2011, sheriff’s deputies shot and killed burglary suspect Larry Adams after he fired a gun at K-9 officers chasing him. Two weeks earlier, deputies shot and killed 39-year-old Franklin White, suspected of killing his girlfriend in Gaston County, N.C., when he jumped into a car, sped away and then fired at them during a chase on Lesslie Highway.
SLED, which investigates almost all officer-involved shootings in South Carolina, says the incident with Canipe is the ninth this year.
Police shootings have been on the rise in South Carolina. SLED investigated 27 in 2009 with five suspects killed. Agents investigated 42 shootings in 2013, including 18 in which the suspect died. In almost all police shootings in South Carolina, the officers are cleared.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott thinks suspects these days are willing to be more violent. Sixty-three times in 2013, someone assaulted one of his deputies, he said. Seventeen of his officers were shot at.
“We have too many people who think guns solve everything. I don’t think our young people are being taught respect for authority and law enforcement,” Lott said.
But it just isn’t young people. In December, an officer in Anderson shot and killed a 49-year-old shoplifting suspect after she allegedly tried to run over him. In January, a patient at a Chesterfield County psychiatric treatment center was killed by a probation officer after attacking a psychologist. And in February, a 68-year-old Edgefield man died in his front yard after he led officers on a chase when they tried to stop him on suspicion of driving under the influence. Authorities said there was an altercation before the officer started firing. All three shootings are still under investigation.
In Canipe’s shooting, the York County Sheriff’s Office released a brief statement with a few facts about the traffic stop and a request for prayers for the deputy and Canipe. But it left no doubt that authorities thought the shooting was justified.
“The situation is very unfortunate. It does appear, at this time, that deputy Knox’s actions were an appropriate response to what he reasonably believed to be an imminent threat to his life,” said sheriff’s spokesman Trent Faris.
Police shootings expert Alpert said that statement was reckless because it is too early to determine exactly what happened. He said officers must be trained to take everything happening into account. How old is the suspect? Is he being belligerent? Is the suspect moving fast and trying to conceal what he is doing? Is the situation a minor event or a possibly a major crime?
“It takes a while to get to the bottom of these things. Why did the officer feel he was in fear? Were there alternatives to shooting this guy?” Alpert said. “Each time he pulled the trigger he should have re-evaluated whether he was threatened.”
The Herald’s Jonathan McFadden contributed to this report