How many bullets does it take to bring down an unsuspecting man as he is reaching for his wallet? According to former South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert, the answer is four. That’s how many times he shot at Lavar Edward Jones after he asked him for his license.
Maybe Groubert was nervous. But given the fact Groubert has since been arrested and charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, his superiors are not accepting that as an excuse.
While stopped at a gas station, the trooper asked to see Jones’ driver’s license as he stepped out of his car. Jones complied, and as he turned around to grab his wallet out of his car, Groubert drew his weapon and fired four shots at Jones, who staggered backward and threw his hands in the air. Jones survived.
The scene was captured by the dashboard camera in Groubert’s cruiser. After the South Carolina Department of Public Safety released the video last week, the not-so-routine traffic stop grabbed the attention of a nation still reeling from the violence that spilled out of Ferguson, Missouri after a police officer killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
These two instances of police officers shooting unarmed citizens were part of Saturday’s panel discussion “Know Your Rights” hosted by the Magic City Bar Association at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex’s Medical Forum Auditorium.
“There is a tension in Birmingham,” attorney Tanita Cain said as she sat alongside the other panelists. “What happened in Ferguson or South Carolina could’ve happened anywhere. There is tension between the police officers in Birmingham and the surrounding communities.”
Another member of the panel was Charles “Todd” Henderson, who ran for Jefferson County Sheriff this past election. Henderson recalled an incident that occurred when he was a young officer that changed the way routine traffic stops would be handled by law enforcement. After a police officer in Texas was killed during a routine stop, law enforcement agencies around the country shifted gears and began training their officers for these situations based solely around “keeping the officers safe,” Henderson explained.
“Here is the problem, I think, from a law enforcement standpoint: the greatest majority of deaths of police officers occur during traffic stops,” Henderson said. As for the incident in South Carolina, Henderson said, “In that video, he completely went against his training. There is no excuse for what happened. One of the common things in each one of these incidents is the age of the officer. Most of them are very young.”
From a police officer’s standpoint, Henderson explained, if people were more aware of their rights and how to interact with the police, it could drastically cut down on the number of instances—like in Ferguson or South Carolina—where officers feel obligated to draw their weapon and fire. He was quick to add, however, that this does not excuse these instances that have occurred.
Henderson, whose father was a sheriff, says that he “grew up in a sheriff’s home. We need to return to the idea of community policing.” He believes this tactic would go a long way to ease the tension between the police and those in the community who feel as though they could become the next victim of unnecessary force. It’s a concept his father used to practice, and how police in general used to handle their business, Henderson explained.
“Just like in the Ferguson incident, that was horrible. I think there are so many things that could’ve been done differently to avoid these incidents. Here’s the problem with law enforcement nowadays, in my opinion: We used to have this concept of community policing. I remember when I grew up that I was taught not to look at law enforcement as an adversary, but an advocate. We have got to get back to the business of service,” Henderson said. “Protection has to be a result of service.”
Henderson noted how members in the community should know their beat officer. “They should have their cell phone number. I’ve been to several neighborhood association meetings around here where people have a relationship with the officer on their beat. They don’t call dispatch or 911, they call their officer. I think if we can grow those type of relationships we can avoid these situations like we’ve seen in Ferguson and South Carolina.”
In Birmingham, race plays a large role in the relationship between members of the community and the police, Tamika Wren, an attorney who spoke at Saturday’s discussion, explained.
She referenced the media’s coverage of violent crime and how that can skew the public’s “perception of black men.”
Wren said that, “For me, being a black female, I have to know how to operate in two cultures. I have to know how to operate in my African-American community, but I also need to know how to operate in a majority community. So when we place police officers that have never had a personal relationship with someone of color and the only thing that they see is how the media characterizes black men — as hostile, overly aggressive — then that is the reason why a young white man may not know how to react in certain situations.”
Wren agreed with Henderson’s notion about returning to a community-based police force. But she thinks that the screening process for police officers should focus more on mental dexterity and whether or not an individual will be able to react appropriately in dangerous situations.
“Talking to police officers, there needs to be more of a mental screening. Will this person properly respond under stress? Because it is a minute-by-minute decision. So some of these instances of overreacting, maybe could be avoided by the selection process, or even taking a black officer and placing them with the white officer in the black communities,” Wren said.
“Let me jump in right here,” Cain interjected. “Where I differ with that, if we’re talking about brutality and untrained officers, I don’t think that is an issue of color. I’ve seen black officers beat the ham sandwich out of black people. When we’re talking about untrained officers, that could occur anywhere. I’ve seen it across the board.”
Something that all the panelists agreed on, however, is that everyone should know their rights and how to properly interact with police.
“We have got to get back into the business of serving,” Henderson said. “The LAPD has one of the greatest slogans ever: Serve and Protect. It seems like lately we have got these things backwards. It shouldn’t be protect first, serve later.”