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Report Highlights Domestic Violence Against Women By South Carolina Police

Ulrike Mai

South Carolina consistently ranks high as a state where women are dying from violence committed by men. Victims of violence depend on law enforcement to help them, but what happens when a police officer is the one committing the violence?

David Travis Bland is a reporter for The State newspaper behind a lengthy piece examining violence committed by off-duty law enforcement. He joined WFAE "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to explain his investigation.

David Travis Bland: Thank you for having me.

Marshall Terry: What caught your attention and drew you to report on this issue?

Bland: Yeah, so I believe it was around 2018. It seemed like every month there was another police officer being arrested for domestic violence, and it seemed like there was probably three months, four months in a row where there was a police officer arrested for domestic violence. And I said to myself, "Wow, if this is really the trend, like officers arrested every month, that would be a lot of police arrested over a whole decade or more in South Carolina."

So, I started digging into news releases and other sort of reports, police reports themselves, about trying to find officers who were arrested for domestic violence, and I uncovered that it was more than just domestic violence. It was a whole array of violence against women, so that includes like sexual assault, other domestic related issues like stalking. And so that's how I began researching this.

Terry: What is the scope of the problem with what you're talking about here? Can you quantify it?

Bland: I can in some ways. So, I found 99 cases perpetuated by 96 officers, so there were some officers that were arrested multiple times throughout 2010 to 2020. So, those 99 cases are what I found. And that equates to about nine officers being arrested per year from 2010 to 2020. But the important part is that all the people I speak with — so, domestic violence survivor advocates, police policy experts — all say this is happening more than what we actually know, what you see in the reports.

Terry: So, you're saying there are unreported cases as well. What did you find about why victims don't report the violence?

Bland: You know, for the victims, it's a very complex struggle they're dealing with because their abuser might also be the sole income provider. So, survivors of domestic violence are concerned that if they report their abuser, they might not have the ability to take care of their children. You know, they also think, "Is reporting going to make the violence against me worse?"

They also deal with the fact that they know that if they report their police officer partner — and in most cases these are men; I think I found it was over 90% men, which was not surprising — that if they report their police officer boyfriend or husband to law enforcement, that they may not be treated fairly because law enforcement (officers) have loyalties to each other. So, all those taken together create a complex struggle for victims when considering reporting or not.

Terry: You just said that more than 90% of these cases are situations where a man is committing the violence. But you also found situations where female officers who were off duty committed violence?

Bland: Yeah, I did. I think eight cases out of 99 were women, and a few of those were jail guards. So, jail guards are employed by law enforcement (agencies) and work for sheriff's departments most of the time in South Carolina — not all the time, though, so it's a little different than your average beat cop out there. And also some of these are women in gay relationships, too, so it's not quite the dynamic you might be thinking of, just regular partner-to-partner violence in a heterosexual relationship.

Terry: I want to focus on one case in particular of all the cases that you have reported on, and that's one that's close to the Charlotte area. It's the case of a former Fort Mill police officer making its way through the courts. What can you tell us about that?

Bland: Yeah, that's the case of an officer named Stephen Cleary. He was charged with multiple counts of different offenses. Those include aggravated domestic violence, kidnaping and even child neglect. It was December of 2020. Officers were called to his house. He was, according to the police report, in a fight with his wife that turned physical.

He ended up pushing her, pushing their child as well, and there was a gun involved. And in the police report, it said it was laying on the bedroom floor in a threatening manner. They actually had to track him down to Florida because he fled the scene before police were able to get there. And then he didn't show up for work the next day, so he was terminated for misconduct.

But what's telling about this case is that it has so many elements that other cases have. Often children are involved with cases. There's often guns involved because that's one of the unique elements: When an officer is an abuser, there's almost always a gun nearby. So, that's another struggle that victims of officer-involved domestic violence, as it's sometimes called, deal with knowing that this violence can escalate to a deadly point very quickly.

Terry: How does South Carolina compare to other states in violence committed by off-duty officers?

Bland: There's not really much research out there, so I can't tell you exactly. We know that South Carolina deals with violence against women at higher rates than other states. For the longest time, South Carolina was in the top five worst states for men killing women. Now, it dropped out of the top 10 states, I believe, in 2018, but the latest numbers have not been updated yet. Officer-involved domestic violence is really an under-researched area, so we don't know the exact rates of it compared state by state. There's been studies done, but none of them have gotten drilled down to the exact numbers of the issue.

Terry: What can law enforcement agencies do to prevent this from happening? Can they do anything?

Bland: Yes, they certainly can, and some states have taken initiatives to control this issue. And the biggest thing that policing experts say is that they can create a policy for when an officer is a domestic violence offender. Creating a policy is the single thing that policing experts say that agencies can do to curb this issue.

Policy really guides police agencies, and if there is no policy, then it's going to be dealt with in a discretionary manner, which leads to issues. There's also things that the state could do, like requiring minimum standards for police agencies.

Right now in South Carolina, police agencies are not required to have any sort of policies or rules, minimum standards aside from gun training. So, requiring agencies to have those minimum standards would require them to create something maybe like a domestic violence policy if the state was to put that into their minimum standards law.

And also things that the state has started doing are like pre screenings — required psychological pre-screenings — of officers to find out if they have some sort of tendency for violence against women. Now, the state of South Carolina has started doing that, and in this case, one police leader in South Carolina told me that has resulted in about a hundred or maybe more (officer candidates) not being hired. So, that seems to be working for weeding out officers that may not have the character for the job.

Terry: What's been the response from law enforcement about this issue?

Bland: It hasn't been vocal. I know that I talk to plenty of police officers and police leaders off the record a lot of times. They don't want to maybe talk on the record about this, but they know it's an issue. But are they standing up and saying this is a major issue we have to deal with in South Carolina? Not many of them are. They just recognize it as an issue. How to deal with it? I haven't heard many leaders being vocal about how to deal with it, despite it being known that it's an issue.

Terry: Thank you for joining us today.

Bland: Thank you for having me.

Terry That's David Travis Bland, a reporter for The State newspaper, which recently published his story, "A decade of abuse: South Carolina police have an issue with violence against women. What can fix it?"

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.