A South Carolina state trooper’s dashboard video shows an unarmed driver being shot just seconds after he was stopped for a seatbelt offense – and the trooper, who was fired last week, has now been charged with assault.
As Levar Jones cried in pain waiting for an ambulance, he repeated one question: “Why did you shoot me?”
Jones’s painful groans and then-Trooper Sean Groubert’s reply – “Well you dove head first back into your car” – were captured by the camera.
Groubert’s boss, state Public Safety Director Leroy Smith, called the video “disturbing” and said “Groubert reacted to a perceived threat where there was none” as he fired the officer Friday.
The 31-year-old former trooper is charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, a felony that carries up to 20 years in prison. He was released after paying 10 percent of a $75,000 bond.
The dashboard camera video was released by prosecutors Wednesday night after they showed it at Groubert’s bond hearing.
Four Shots Fired
Jones was stopped Sept. 4 as he pulled into a convenience store on a busy Columbia road. With the camera recording, Groubert pulls up without his siren on as Jones is getting out of his vehicle to go into the store.
“Can I see your license please?” Groubert asks.
As Jones turns and reaches back into his car, Groubert shouts, “Get outa the car, get outa the car.” He begins firing before he has finished the second sentence. There is a third shot as Jones staggers away, backing up with his hands raised, and then a fourth.
Jones’s wallet can be seen flying out of his hands as he raises them.
Groubert’s lawyer, Barney Giese, said the shooting was justified because the trooper feared for his life and the safety of others. Police officers are rarely charged in South Carolina. In August, a prosecutor refused to file criminal charges against a York County deputy who shot a 70-year-old man after mistaking his cane for a shotgun during an after-dark traffic stop.
White Officer and Black Victim
Groubert is white and Jones is black. Neither state police nor the FBI keep detailed statistics on the races of people in officer-involved shootings.
Much like the recent police shooting of a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the racial aspect of the South Carolina shooting bothers state Rep. Joe Neal, an African-American lawmaker who has spoken out against racism in law enforcement for years.
“You are doing exactly what the police officer asked you do to and you get shot for it?” said Neal, D-Hopkins. “That’s insane.”
Neal said he doubts the trooper would have been charged without the video. South Carolina has nearly 300 police agencies, and many smaller forces don’t have dashboard cameras.
“If it had been the trooper’s story versus his story, I’m not sure anything happens,” Neal said.
Hopes to Make a Change
Jones is recovering after being shot in the hip. He released a statement last week saying he hopes his shooting leads to changes in how police officers treat suspects.
“I thank God every day that I am here with a story to tell and hope my situation can make a change,” Jones said.
He and his lawyer have not spoken publicly since Groubert was charged Wednesday.
Groubert first worked for the Highway Patrol from September 2005 to September 2009. After going to work for the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, he returned to the state agency in July 2012.
This isn’t the first time Groubert fired his service weapon. In August 2012, Groubert and another trooper chased a man who drove away from a traffic stop and fired at the suspect after he shot first, according to the Highway Patrol. The suspect was convicted of attempted murder and is spending 20 years in prison.
Groubert was awarded the agency’s Medal of Valor Award for his actions in protecting the public.
So far in 2014 in South Carolina, police have shot at suspects 35 times, killing 16 of them, according to the State Law Enforcement Division. The number of officer-involved shootings has been steadily increasing over the past few years, with 42 reported in 2013.