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Opinion Aiken, S.C., officials, newspaper react to story about roadside search

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About 10 days ago, I first reported about the traffic stop and apparent cavity search involving a black couple in Aiken, S.C. The story has since taken off and spurred some interesting reaction back in Aiken.

When I first asked Aiken Department of Public Safety Capt. David Turno about the incident, he told me that it had been investigated and that Officer Chris Medlin and the other officers remained on the police force.

After the story went viral, however, the city placed three of the four officers involved on “administrative reassignment” (the other officer has since retired), pending an investigation. The city also plans to hire an “outside group” to conduct that investigation. Additionally, the city announced that all officers in the department would be taking racial sensitivity training and city officials made a public commitment to making the police force more diverse. According to the Aiken Standard, the city also passed an emergency bill to set up a citizens review board to look at complaints against local police. The paper notes that the board was set up in direct response to the fallout from the story. The story was also the subject of a town hall meeting sponsored by state and local racial-justice groups.

Contrary to what Turno told me, city officials did not know about the lawsuit. Or if they did, they’re not admitting it.

Aiken City Manager John Klimm said Wednesday he was never made aware of the lawsuit service from a suit that says four Aiken police officers unconstitutionally searched two county residents on the side of the road in 2014.
An affidavit of service was hand delivered to the city on Oct. 22, 2015 at 2:59 p.m., court records show.
According to the affidavit, Sara Ridout, the city’s longtime clerk, who signed off on the service, is stated in the affidavit as authorized to accept the service.
On Wednesday, Klimm said he was never aware of the affidavit, and Ridout, who receives legal documents regularly, has no memory of the affidavit coming to the city.
Klimm added Ridout routinely passes legal documents on to the parties of interest, which Klimm said in this case could have been Aiken Public Safety Chief Charles Barranco or the staff member who handles the city’s insurance.

Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon says he first learned of the lawsuit on Facebook.

The city’s apparent ignorance of the lawsuit aside, the measures taken by the city council seem to be positive and productive. But at the same time that the city is investigating the officers, it’s also defending them. The Aiken Department of Public Safety continues to insist that the traffic stop and searches were all legal. And an unnamed source at the agency told the Aiken Daily Standard that it was Elijah Pontoon, not Officer Chris Medlin, who is heard on the recording saying, “You gonna pay for this one, boy.”

That seems unlikely. For one, it doesn’t sound like Pontoon. It sounds like Medlin. Of course, the audio isn’t all that great, so it’s difficult to say for sure. But there are other indicators. Pontoon is polite throughout the stop. He does at a couple points call the stop harassment. Given that neither he nor Lakeya Hicks had committed even a traffic violation, much less a crime, he had a point. It’s also just difficult to imagine a young black man who to that point had been polite referring to an armed, white cop as “boy.” Hicks and Pontoon also allege in their lawsuit that it was Medlin who made the comment. Given that the lawsuit itself doesn’t allege racial discrimination, it’s difficult to see why Pontoon would make that comment, then lie about it later.

This edited dashcam video shows white police officers in Aiken, S.C., stop and search a black couple. (Video: Aiken Police Department)

Finally, I’d also like to address an editorial that ran in the Aiken Standard, because it’s rather dismissive of my reporting. The editorial ran on Saturday. It first praises the town’s public official for the way they’ve handled the incident. But it also takes some cheap shots at me and this blog.

While the optics of the search certainly warrant public scrutiny, let’s not forget The Washington Post blog was opinion, not necessarily fact.
Written in the first person, the blog infuses personal opinions of the author, going as far as to recommend the City of Aiken settle the suit.
We’re not criticizing the blog writer’s assertions since we are as ardent protectors of the First Amendment as is The Washington Post.
Our point is that The Washington Post blog was rooted in opinion, which is how the blog should be regarded. It’s not a news story conveying information from a neutral perspective.

The facts in the post are drawn straight from the lawsuit, the video and interviews with sources, one on the record, a few others on background. I included both a copy of the lawsuit and the video for readers to decide for themselves what happened. I also consulted a Fourth Amendment expert to give some analysis of it all. The post was also reviewed by two editors.

It’s true that the post appeared in the “Opinion” section of The Post website. If you dismiss every story reported by an opinion journalist, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stories.

The incident also didn’t happen last week or even last month. It happened 17 months ago.

That’s correct. It also happened in the Aiken Standard’s backyard. It’s clearly a big story, as evidence by the national coverage and outrage it generated. So why didn’t the Aiken Standard report it first? The lawsuit was public record. Why did the paper only begin covering the incident 17 months after it happened, and only after it was first reported by a mere blogger who lives 400 miles away?

News stories and editorials are two distinct things. A news story presents facts in an unbiased fashion, giving all relevant stakeholders their say, so readers can remain informed about current events.
Editorials such as this one use facts to support an editorial position. The Washington Post blog falls into this category. It was not a news story, as evidenced by The Washington Post writing its own article after the Aiken Standard report.

I, of course, did give the Aiken Department of Public Safety an opportunity to have its say. I’m not sure what “editorial position” I was pushing, save perhaps for the uncontroversial (I’d hope) opinion that illegal stops, searches and violations of the human body are a bad thing.

Another component to The Washington Post blog is that it suggests the traffic stop was racially motivated. The headline notes that the plaintiffs are both African-American while the police officers involved were all white.
Though that observation is factually accurate, nowhere in the pending litigation is it stated that race was an issue.

The last clause is true, although that’s likely in part because racial discrimination is incredibly difficult to prove in a case like this. We chose to note the races of the police officers — as well as the race of Hicks and Pontoon — because of the “boy” comment, and because of Medlin’s claim to have seen Pontoon back in his days as a drug cop. It’s also worth noting that this incident took place at a time when we’re having a national discussion about race and policing. South Carolina has been a huge part of that discussion, both due to specific incidents and because the state has come under criticism for the disproportionate rate at which black motorists seem to get pulled over.

I don’t know if Officer Medlin or the Aiken Department of Public Safety are racist, nor would I claim to know such things. I do know that it would have been misleading to leave the race of the officers and motorists out of the story.

As noted above, Aiken city leaders reacted to this story by mandating racial sensitivity training for police officers, promising to make the city’s police force more diverse and attending a town hall meeting hosted by racial-justice groups. The Aiken Standard editorial board may think that the stop and searches had nothing to do with race, but the same city leaders upon which the editorial heaps praise seem to think otherwise.

The most important function of the press is to be a watchdog on power. I’d think that when made aware an incident such as this, caught on video, a good newspaper would start digging around to see if there had been similar incidents. (Here’s a tip for the paper’s assignment editors: If it’s happened once, it’s probably happened before.) Instead, the Aiken editorial board has chosen to praise police and local officials, and to reserve its skepticism for the publication that reported the incident. For all its derision toward me (the 665-word editorial uses the word “blog” 10 times), maybe the Aiken Standard could stand to take a lesson or two from opinion journalism. Do that, and perhaps the next time there’s national news in Aiken, the town’s newspaper will be the outlet that breaks it.