South Carolina town divided over role of race in police shooting

South Carolina town divided over whether man's shooting was a matter of race or bad policing

Bernard Bailey went to Town Hall to discuss his daughter's traffic ticket for a broken taillight. Within minutes, he was dead — the police chief shot him twice in the chest. A third bullet passed through his shoulder and into his head.

Almost as swiftly, news of the shooting coursed through this tight-knit Southern town with a population of barely more than 300. Nearly everyone knew Bailey, a 54-year-old father of five. He was the deacon of a Baptist church, his wife the elementary school librarian.

"People were just, like, 'Bernard? Really?'" said Stacie Shuler, owner of Chic Salon & Makeup, a block from Town Hall. "He was the last man anyone would have expected to die that way. It didn't make sense."

This month — more than three years after the May 2011 shooting — a grand jury in South Carolina indicted Eutawville's white former police chief, Richard J. Combs, on murder charges. The news was announced on the same day that a grand jury in New York declined to charge a white police officer in the choking death of a black man, Eric Garner.

Throughout Eutawville, which is 36% black, there was shared relief at the former police chief's indictment. Yet up and down Porcher Avenue — from the barber shop that offers razor-line cuts to the thrift store that sells candy-colored church hats — locals differed on whether race or bad policing was to blame.

"He was a black man," said Adam Green, the black owner of the Hair Doctor, describing Bailey as a close friend, fellow church member and a pillar of the community. "It would never have happened to a white man."

"It was a stupid tragedy — nothing to do with black or white," said Cynthia Nutt, the white owner of C&J Trading Post, pausing to help one of Bailey's cousins load an old dryer into a minivan. "He went up to plead his daughter's case and he ended up dead. How did it escalate to that?"

Many in Eutawville — black and white — resist the idea that the shooting is part of a national pattern of racism. The Bailey family has pointedly distanced its case from other high-profile police shootings across the country.

"That is comparing apples and oranges," Bailey's widow, Doris Anderson Bailey, told reporters who asked for comment on the significance of the indictment in the wake of grand juries deciding not to indict officers in the killings of Garner and Michael Brown in Missouri.

Combs is the third white officer in South Carolina to be charged in recent months in the shootings of unarmed black men. In August, a North Augusta officer was charged with misconduct after fatally shooting a 68-year-old man twice in the chest after a car chase. In September, a state trooper in Columbia was charged with assault and battery after shooting a man who reached into his car for his driver's license during a traffic stop.

The Rev. Byron Wilson, pastor of Springhill Baptist Church, said that any police officer who shoots an unarmed man should face a jury trial. He noted that Bailey presented a more sympathetic case than other victims of police shootings. "In most of these other cases, the victims were committing some kind of crime," he said. "Bernard Bailey just went to pay a ticket for his daughter."

Almost everyone knew Bailey, who worked as an assistant manager at a Wal-Mart. Combs was new to Eutawville, having joined the force less than three months before the shooting and completed his police chief training just four days before.

Even in that short time, Combs raised eyebrows.

Jean Davis-Capers, president of the Eutawville chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said she met with First Circuit Solicitor David M. Pascoe before the shooting to complain that Combs overzealously targeted younger African Americans for traffic tickets. "He was a ticking time bomb," Davis-Capers said.

In March 2011, Combs pulled over Briana Bailey to ticket her for a broken taillight. She immediately called her father, a 6-foot-6 former correctional officer who arrived at the scene to protest. After the men argued, Bailey left.

Combs obtained a warrant to arrest Bailey for obstruction of justice, but did not inform Bailey. Six weeks later, when Bailey visited Town Hall to discuss the ticket, Combs tried to arrest him and Bailey marched out to the parking lot. The two men struggled as Combs reached into Bailey's Chevrolet pickup and attempted to handcuff him.

At a court hearing in November, Combs testified that he became pinned in the door jamb as the truck began to back up, causing him to fear for his life. Combs did not carry a Taser or pepper spray — the department could not afford it — so he pulled out his .40-caliber pistol and fired three shots.

For some, the shooting of a black man by a white police officer brought up memories of the Old South. In 1968, Orangeburg County was the site of what came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black college students were shot to death by white state highway patrolmen as they protested the segregation of a bowling alley.

Yet there has been progress in Orangeburg County, Davis-Capers said. African Americans have been elected mayors of small towns across the county, which is 50% black. Since the shooting, Eutawville has gone through a political overhaul, electing its first black mayor in 2013. Two of its four Town Council members are African American.

"When I was young, everything was separated — whites on one side, blacks on another," Davis-Capers said. "Now everyone drinks out of the same fountain, goes to the same school, sees the same doctor."

Black lives, however, continue to be devalued, said the Rev. Gralin Nix Hampton, pastor of Briner Christian Church in nearby Holly Hill, noting that Combs' employment was not terminated until six months after the shooting. "Our community has to stop being so silent, and when we speak, we have to be less extreme."

In an era of swift Internet outrage, local activists followed a notably old-style approach. Clergymen took to the pulpit, held interfaith prayer vigils and wrote measured letters to state and federal officials. Many locals — black and white — put up red ribbons outside their homes and businesses to commemorate Bailey's death.

"We insisted this was a matter of right and wrong, not black and white," Hampton said.

The indictment against Combs was a long time coming. State prosecutors did not pick up the case until the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division finished investigating the shooting in March 2013. Federal investigators found no evidence of a racial motive.

Five months later, state prosecutors charged Combs with misconduct in office. Combs' attorneys then filed a motion seeking immunity from prosecution on the basis of the state's "stand your ground" law.

At a hearing in November, Pascoe, the solicitor, described Combs, who was terminated from the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Office in 2007 for "violation of agency policy," as unstable. Pascoe said Combs had a history of showing up for work drunk, and was disciplined for chasing a vehicle on foot while armed and wearing only boxer shorts.

Circuit Judge Edgar W. Dickson dismissed the defense's "stand your ground" motion, arguing that Combs had initiated the physical confrontation with Bailey. Pascoe then asked a grand jury to consider an additional charge of murder, which carries 30 years to life in prison.

"They finally got it right," said Tara Shelby, 29, a Eutawville office manager, who is white. "It's a smidge of justice."

nation@latimes.com

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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