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Litchfield shooting: Criminal charge against deputy would be rare, experts say

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Seven seconds.

In a confrontation, that’s how long it takes for a person with a knife to reach you, said Guy Osborne, the former Pawleys Island police chief who spent 42 years in law enforcement.

The Georgetown County deputy who shot and killed a Litchfield woman who was threatening to commit suicide with a knife after he said she charged at him was forced to make a split-second decision, say former officers who have been in similar situations. It’s unlikely, they say, based on information released by the sheriff’s office, that the deputy would face criminal charges.

Valerie Harrington, 36, died July 12 of “multiple gunshot wounds,” according to the county coroner, after deputies went to her apartment in Litchfield Oaks in response to a call from family members that she was suicidal. They were told by her attorney that she had locked herself in the bathroom with a knife. Deputies got a key to the apartment from the manager and as they were searching inside Harrington “charged at a deputy with a knife in her hand,” according to a supervisor’s report.

A deputy, whom the sheriff’s office has declined to name, shot her. She died at Waccamaw Community Hospital.

“If you’re threatened by someone with a knife who can kill you or do serious bodily harm, unfortunately that’s kind of the way you approach it,” said Geoff Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Criminal Justice who has studied the use of force by police over 25 years. “An officer is forced to respond to a threat, and if the threat is with a deadly weapon, you use deadly force. You don’t wait to see if she’s serious. Once she gets in that zone of danger, you have to protect yourself.”

That zone is 10 or 15 feet, said Gary Corder, former head of police in St. Michael’s, Md., and a professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He has studied police response to people with mental health problems.

“So many times the end result of it all is that under the law what the officers did was legal,” Corder said. “They’re not criminally responsible, but by the same token it turns out the person was clearly suicidal, presumably only intending to kill themselves, or they were having an actual mental health episode and they weren’t in their right mind.”

He added, “It typically seems to the public and to the person’s family that the person was not really going to be a threat to anybody else and yet the police killed them. Nobody is satisfied with the outcome although it was probably legal.”

As a police officer, Corder said he once faced a woman with a knife who was “having some kind of an episode.” The difference in his case was the woman was outdoors.

“In that situation, I had the luxury of backing off and talking to her. Eventually we got her to drop the knife,” he said. “A lot of the times when police end up shooting a person it’s split-second, close-quarters.”

In July 2003, Osborne faced a 39-year-old man who had gone to the beach at Pawleys Island armed with a knife intending to kill himself. He found the man’s pickup truck at the Third Street access and a suicide note. The man was on the beach, bleeding from the wrists. He tried to goad Osborne into shooting him.

“I could have shot him and been justified,” Osborne said. “The training is that anyone with a weapon and proposing to use it in a threatening manner is a person you could actually shoot.”

Osborne drew his gun and positioned himself between the man and bystanders. The man stuck the knife in his chest, Osborne took the man to the ground before he could remove the knife.

“That’s a decision an officer has to make based on his training,” he said. “Without question you go there with the assumption that you’re going to save them from themselves.”

Police have a hard time with incidents that involve people with mental illness, Corder said. “Police training and tactics typically lead officers to handle incidents one of two ways: either very authoritatively by commanding people to stop what they’re doing and/or by reasoning with people. Neither of those works real well with somebody who’s having a mental health crisis,” he said. “The default response is to arrest them.”

Over the last 20 years, departments have created crisis intervention teams with training and contacts in the mental health system, said Corder, who also serves on the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. But the presence of a weapon changes the debate, he said.

“If somebody has a weapon and uses that weapon to threaten the officers, then you’re not talking about deciding whether to take them to a psychiatric ward. You’re talking about having to deal with a violent situation,” Corder said.

“The issue is the threat,” Alpert said. “If someone threatens you, what else are you going to do? You’re not going to put yourself in harm’s way. Unfortunately, that’s how you protect yourself.”

The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the incident. After it makes a recommendation to the solicitor’s office, the sheriff’s office policy calls for an internal review. A spokeswoman said the sheriff’s office won’t release additional information about the shooting until the SLED report is complete.

“If this is a typical situation, somebody’s going to sue,” Corder said. “It’s extremely rare that in a situation like the one we’re talking about that the police are found to have violated any criminal law. Civil law can be different.”

One question that is likely to arise is whether the deputies had other options.

“You would hope in the best of all possible worlds that the police could retreat. That the police could have some other means of disarming the person, or at least avoid being threatened by that knife without shooting them,” Corder said. That’s easy to talk about in hindsight, he added. “If you’re standing a few feet away from that person at that moment, it’s a little harder to come up with all these clever, other possibilities.”

Funeral services for Valerie Jan Abbott Harrington were held Saturday in Sardis City, the town where she grew up in northern Alabama. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and graduated from Auburn University with a degree in chemical engineering, according to her obituary. She worked for International Paper for 14 years. She is survived by her 3-year-old daughter who lives with her ex-husband in Andrews.

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