Earlier this month, a white South Carolina Highway Patrol officer shot an unarmed black man during a traffic stop at a gas station in the city of Columbia. While the incident at the time was enough to catch the attention of local investigators, it exploded into the wider consciousness on Wednesday when dash cam video of the shooting became public and the officer was charged with aggravated assault.
The case against officer Sean Groubert, 31, highlights how rare it is for a law enforcement officer to be charged in a shooting and also shows the vital role that video cameras can play in these types of altercations.
If convicted, Groubert could face up to 20 years in prison, according to The State newspaper in Columbia. He had already been fired from the highway patrol last week, the newspaper reported, after the Department of Public Safety reviewed the evidence.
The incident began on Sept. 4 when Groubert pulled over a sport utility vehicle being driven by 35-year-old Levar Jones. A camera mounted on the officer’s vehicle captured the shocking and frantic moments that followed. The video was posted online by The State on Wednesday.
The incident began calmly enough.
“Can I see your license please?” Groubert asked.
But something quickly changed. As Jones turned around and reached into his vehicle, Groubert could be heard shouting, “Get out of the car! Get out of the car!”
The officer then fired multiple times.
Jones stumbled away from his vehicle with his hands in the air and then fell to the ground. As Groubert radioed for medical help, the two men could be heard talking.
“I just grabbed my license. You said get my license!” Jones said. “What did I do, sir?”
“Are you hit?” Groubert said.
“I think so. I can’t feel my leg,” Jones said. “I don’t know what happened. … Why did you shoot me?”
“Well, you dove headfirst back into your car,” Groubert said.
Jones’s attorney, state Rep. Todd Rutherford (D), has told local media that his client is recuperating at home after a stay at the hospital to treat an injury to his hip. Jones could be heard in the video telling the officer he “drive(s) for a medical courier service.”
Rutherford did not return TPM’s request for comment on Thursday.
Groubert, meanwhile, was arrested and jailed Wednesday on $75,000 bond, according to The State. He had been a state trooper since 2005, the newspaper reported.
The indictment is notable as it is generally rare for police officers to be charged for shootings committed in the line of duty, as TPM reported last month. A combination of legal and cultural norms contributes to the low indictment rate. The issue most recently received renewed scrutiny after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August.
The director of the state’s public safety department explained why Groubert was fired.
“While Mr. Groubert was within the law to stop Mr. Jones for a safety-belt violation, the force administered in this case was unwarranted, inconsistent with how our troopers are trained and clearly in violation of department policies,” the director, Leroy Smith, said in summarizing his agency’s findings, according to The State newspaper.
Columbia television station WLTX reported that Groubert had faced five previous complaints for his performance on the job. Two were dismissed, but in two cases, charges against someone Groubert had arrested were dropped because administrative procedures were not properly followed or the arrest was not considered proper. The other complaint was ongoing as of last week.
Watch the video below. Warning, it’s graphic: