I first wrote about Julian Betton’s case in my 2016 series on policing in South Carolina. Betton was raided by a multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force after a police informant bought $50 worth of marijuana from him two times. The police broke down Betton’s door with a battering ram, then fired at least 57 bullets at him, hitting him nine times. He lost portions of his gallbladder, colon, bowel and rectum, and is paralyzed from the waist down. He also suffered damage to his liver, lung, small intestine and pancreas. Two of his vertebrae were damaged, and another was partially destroyed. Another bullet shattered his leg.
In their remarkably consistent after-action reports and interviews, members of the raid team initially claimed they fired only after Betton shot at them first. They had to change that narrative when the crime lab revealed that Betton’s gun hadn’t been fired. They then claimed they opened fire when he pointed his gun at them. They claimed he had no right to do so because — again in remarkably similar, almost word-for-word descriptions — they knocked and announced themselves repeatedly before breaking down his door. Several of the officers were wearing body cameras. Those cameras might have shown us whether members of the raid team had indeed knocked and announced themselves several times before smashing Betton’s door with a battering ram. But curiously, all the raid team members who were wearing body cameras neglected to activate them prior to the raid. Curiouser still, they all did activate their cameras after the raid went down, and after Betton lay in his own home, bloodied and nearly dead.
He was placed under arrest at the hospital where he was recovering, and charged for the marijuana and for pointing a gun at police officers. He woke from his coma handcuffed to his hospital bed.
What the police didn’t know is that Betton had a security camera. There’s no audio, but the camera clearly shows that the police almost certainly didn’t knock and announce at all before smashing down Betton’s door. At most, it’s at least possible that one officer knocked or announced, though it seems unlikely that there was time to do both. The raid team members also all claimed that the first officers into Betton’s home were wearing clothing that clearly indicated they were police. Betton’s video shows that this, too, was a lie.
The raid and the shooting of Betton were then reviewed by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the state police agency that reviews nearly all of the state’s police shootings. Incredibly, despite having access to the security camera footage, SLED investigators found no wrongdoing on the part of the raid team. Worse, the SLED report didn’t even attempt to explain the significant discrepancies between the footage and the well-rehearsed police reports.
Last year, prosecutors dropped the gun charges against Betton, a pretty good indication that they were convinced either that he never pointed his gun at the raiding cops or, more likely, that the cops didn’t properly knock and announce themselves, in which case he had every right to point a gun at them, at least until he realized they were police officers.
Now, officers from two police agencies that participate in the task force as well as the prosecutor’s office that oversees the unit have settled with Betton for $2.75 million. That, too, seems to be a good indication that town officials know that this raid team messed up, and messed up pretty badly. The city of Myrtle Beach did not participate in the settlement, so Betton’s lawsuit against that city and the officer from the city police department who was involved in the raid will continue.
The main focus of my 2016 series on policing in South Carolina was how deficient SLED appears to be at investigating police shootings. The agency is widely thought to be the most elite law enforcement outfit in the state. Yet my review of shootings found that SLED investigators routinely failed to investigate contradictions and falsehoods in police reports, often made little effort to follow up when police accounts of a shooting were directly contradicted by video or forensic evidence, and sometimes failed to even mention those contradictions. One SLED investigator admitted under oath that he doesn’t even read forensics and crime lab reports. Another said he didn’t bother following up on contradictions between crime lab reports and police reports in an officer-involved shooting “because they’re police officers and I believe what they’re telling me.”
The really troubling thing about all of this is that because SLED is an outside police agency, and because it is viewed as elite, when investigators from the agency clear cops for shootings, they come with a great deal of cachet and credibility. Or at least perceived credibility. And an outside investigation that’s perceived as credible and unbiased, but is actually neither, is arguably more destructive to good policing and good government than not handing the investigation over to an outside agency at all.
After my series ran, SLED chief Mark Keel gave an interview to Statehouse Report in which he made unspecified allegations that the series was “inaccurate” and “misleading,” and dismissed my reporting as the work of someone who wants “to believe that law enforcement is somehow evil.”
Let’s go back to the Betton case. SLED cleared the raid team without noting that the task force members’ reports of the raid appear to have been coordinated and rehearsed, and that those coordinated, rehearsed reports were initially wrong about Betton firing his gun and about the raid team’s attire, and in claiming that members of the raid team repeatedly knocked and announced themselves. Yet local prosecutors didn’t believe there was sufficient evidence that Betton had pointed his gun at the raid team to charge him for doing so. And here’s the thing: If Betton didn’t point his gun, the raid team had no justification to shoot at him 57 times.
Now, officials in two jurisdictions and the local prosecutor’s office seem to believe that the raid team messed up badly enough that they’re willing to pay Betton $2.75 million — which suggests that they think there’s a good chance that a jury would have awarded Betton quite a bit more. It’s difficult to get a jury to rule against police officers, even in really egregious cases. So whoever decided on this settlement undoubtedly concluded that the raid team’s actions were about as bad as it gets.
So the city and local officials outside of SLED who have reviewed this case seem to have reached conclusions that are starkly different from the SLED investigators’ conclusions. But because the SLED investigators found no wrongdoing by the raid team, the only party who will be punished for the damage done to Julian Betton’s body will be South Carolina’s taxpayers.