Officer who shot man used force 8 more times
BY JOSEPH CRANNEY, THE POST AND COURIER
The Columbia police officer who shot a man during a controversial 2019 traffic stop went on to strike, stun and forcibly subdue suspects at a rate that is largely out of step with the rest of the department, records show.
In the wake of the shooting, officer Sean Rollins used force in eight additional incidents between February and June of last year. But, in internal decisions, supervisors cleared Rollins in every instance — declaring the officer was justified in being violent with who they described as unruly suspects who resisted arrest or required restraint.
Columbia police took Rollins off the street only after a public outcry over Rollins’ firing of bean-bag rounds at a crowd of protesters during the first local demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police last May.
By that point, the string of violent incidents involving Rollins — more than one per month — was already well out of whack with the rest of the department. With roughly 275 front-line patrol officers, the Columbia department typically has fewer than 100 annual reported useof-force incidents — an average of well less than one incident per officer over an entire year.
Rollins, 26, who joined the force in 2018, was indefinitely reassigned to a desk job in July, in the wake of his actions at the Floyd protest, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons told ThePost and Courier.
The decision came almost a year after the 2019 incident involving Sir Brandon Legette, a 30-year-old grocery worker who Rollins shot in the back of the head after a struggle during a traffic stop.
Legette survived, but the release of body cam footage from that incident contributed to a storm of local controversy around Rollins last summer, with protesters calling for his firing during demonstrations against police brutality.
Chief Skip Holbrook now acknowledges some missteps around Rollins’ use-of-force incidents and “his concern for them,” Timmons said in a statement without offering details. More than 180 pages of use-offorce reports and other internal records, obtained by The Post and Courier, shed more light. Cleared in the 2019 shooting, less than three months after Rollins returned to duty he used a jawline grip to subdue a handcuffed woman, records show. Immediately after he applied the targeted pressure point, she struck her head inside a transport van, which she later said knocked her unconscious.
Next, on a domestic call to a residence, Rollins tackled a 55-year-old woman in her living room, bloodying her nose and cutting her face. She had tried entering “another room that contained sharp objects that could be used as a weapon,” police contended.
And last May, he fired four bean-bag rounds at a crowd of demonstrators during Floyd protests outside the Statehouse. Rollins, standing yards away, targeted a protester who was “aggressively approaching officers,” police said, even though video showed the man at one point on his knees with his hands up.
Supervisors are required to compile detailed reports anytime an officer uses force on suspects. In their review of the incidents, top brass are also expected to spot trends in an officer’s behavior, or identify if there is a need for additional training. Yet for months, the records show, Rollins’ supervisors stood behind him as his incidents turned violent again and again. In response to one early case, a lieutenant wrote it was “impossible to tell” if Rollins could benefit from more training, the records show.
Supervisors took action only when they recommended follow-up training after his final use-of-force incident in June 2020, and a month later when he was assigned desk duty.
Aside from the protest event, the eight people involved in Rollins’ remaining cases were unarmed and suspected of offenses no more serious than assault,andasminoras“aggressive begging,” records show. Together, police lodged more than 30 charges against them, including eight felonies — half for felony resisting arrest.
Among the eight, seven are Black. Rollins is White.
Marc Brown is a Columbia lawyer representing Legette, who also is Black. The pair have filed a federal lawsuit against Rollins and the department, alleging the officer’s use of deadly force against Legette was excessive and unconstitutional.
Presented with the findings of this story, Brown contended Rollins’ behavior amounts to a “disturbing” trend.
“This officer has a proven pattern of escalating situations with nonviolent citizens,” he said.
The Post and Courier contacted a lawyer for Rollins, Columbia attorney David Morrison, on Feb. 3. He responded the following day and said he had not been given enough time to respond to questions about his client. The newspaper agreed to give him four additional days to respond, but Morrison offered no comments on behalf of his client by the end of Feb. 8.
Holbrook said he requires that all officers are trained to de-escalate tense moments and avoid unnecessary violence, adding that Rollins has completed those courses. And Holbrook said that he places a strong emphasis on accountability.
“Chief has publicly stated that CPD makes it a practice to selfexamine the actions of officers, policies and procedures, enforcement and public services to determine if modifications are prudent,” Timmons said.
Holbrook offered no additional insight as to why Rollins used force so often, other than to say that supervisors closely reviewed each incident.
When asked by The Post and Courier, Holbrook’s department also declined to make body cam footage available in all but one of the incidents where Rollins used force last year, saying that some of the matters were still pending in court.
South Carolina law does not require police to turn over such records.
The Post and Courier also shared its findings with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who said he’s confident in Holbrook’s oversight of the department.
“I know that the CPD is going through the process of constant improvement under Chief Holbrook’s leadership and I support him in his efforts to provide a transparent and accountable 21st- century public safety agency,” Benjamin said.
Columbia police did agree last year to release body camera footage from the 2019 shooting of Legette, the earliest known incident in which Rollins used force.
The footage showed Rollins struggling with Legette inside the man’s vehicle as Legette tried to drive off during a stop over an illegal vehicle tag and suspended license in a Broad River Road supermarket parking lot. After the SUV skidded into an embankment, Rollins rapped Legette with his pistol, then placed the firearm to the back of Legette’s head and pulled the trigger.
Brown, Legette’s attorney, would later call it an “attempted execution.” Holbrook stood behind his officer, calling Brown’s comments “inaccurate, incomplete and irresponsible.”
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson reviewed an investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division and declined to bring charges, ruling the shooting justified.
Rollins told investigators that during the struggle Legette appeared to be reaching for something, which the officer assumed was a weapon. Investigators recovered a firearm near Legette’s driver-side door.
Either way, Rollins’ actions — and his later decision to fire bean-bag rounds at protesters — ignited a storm of controversy, with local protesters chanting Rollins’ name as part of their calls for action in demonstrations over Floyd’s death.
Lawrence Nathaniel, founder of Black Lives Matter South Carolina, was leading those calls. “It still stands,” he said in an interview.
Doubling down on his contention that department must cut ties with Rollins, he said he’s not satisfied that the officer was merely reassigned.
“He still has access to the community,” Nathaniel said. “At any moment and at any time, he can be reactivated back on to the streets.”
‘I’m not resisting’
Less than three months after Rollins was cleared in the Legette shooting, there was the case of Francina Walker.
Rollins showed up at a Walker family residence in Greenview, more than a half-hour after two other officers handled the initial complaint that the 40-year-old housekeeper had taken her mother’s car without permission.
After the family insisted on pressing the issue, video and records show officers struggled to put handcuffs on Walker, who later said she was intoxicated. When they placed her in the back of a squad car, she kicked at the door.
Rollins was called to transport Walker in a police van.
Columbia police invited a Post and Courier reporter to headquarters to view Rollins’ body cam footage from the incident, but did not agree to release a copy.
The footage shows Rollins struggling to seat Walker in the back of the van.
“It hurts,” she said as Rollins secured her handcuffs.
“I don’t care,” Rollins responded.
“I’m not resisting!” Walker yelled, with Rollins at her back inside the van.
Rollins would later write in a report that Walker, while handcuffed, squeezed his genitals and twisted. Walker denied this in an interview with The Post and Courier. In close quarters of a dark van, the body camera footage doesn’t provide a clear picture of the moment, though Rollins twice says,“Let go of me.” The footage also doesn’t provide a view of Rollins’ “mandibular angle” grip, a pressure point he would later say he applied around Walker’s jawline, at the crest of her throat. The maneuver is taught at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, Timmons said, and is designed to help gain compliance from unruly suspects.
Either way, it’s clear what happened next: Walker let out a long scream, then fell silent. She had urinated on herself, then slumped face down on the floor of the van.
Rollins told officers she “smacked her head,” and asked for emergency medical services. No officers attempted medical aid themselves. Instead they carried her from the van and sat her in the street, though she remained limp.
They said on the scene they could hear her crying and suggested she was faking her injuries. “She’s playing games is what she’s doing,” Rollins said. She remained motionless for 10 minutes while her family crowded Rollins, screaming. Asked if officers were required to provide Walker aid, Timmons said, “The officers did not believe the female was in medical distress.”
When medical technicians arrived, they said Walker was unresponsive. In an interview, she said she lost consciousness until she woke up several hours later in the hospital.
She now faces several charges including assaulting a police officer while resisting arrest, a felony.
Supervisors took no issues with Rollins’ handling of the incident, police reports show. But nearly a year after the incident, Timmons told The Post and Courier, “Chief Holbrook acknowledges that the incident could have been handled differently by all officers at various times,” addressing no concerns specifically.
It was less than two weeks after the Walker incident when — on a call for a domestic disturbance to a neighborhood west of the Broad River — Rollins tackled and bloodied a 55-year-old woman in her living room.
The woman had been accused of choking her husband, who lived in a wheelchair, Rollins wrote in a report. She was “uncooperative” and attempted to enter another room where “many items were present and were readily available as weapons,” Rollins wrote.
After Rollins grabbed her, the officer would later say, she began kicking his lower body. The two struggled before he forced her to the ground, bloodying her nose and cutting her face, records show.
In his review of the incident, Lt. Brad Markevicz said Rollins violated no department policies. “It is possible with more training in de-escalation the situation could have been avoided but it is impossible to tell,” Markevicz wrote, adding that Rollins would be enrolled in a crisis intervention training program, “as it becomes available.”
Michael Scott, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, said those comments are a far cry from a supervisor’s responsibility to closely monitor their officers’ use of force.
“This tells the officer, ‘OK my (lieutenant) basically had my back,’” Scott said. “He said, ‘It couldbethis,couldbethat,Ican’t really tell, so let’s do nothing.’ ” “The officer then says, ‘Noted,’” Scott added. “I’ll put that in the back of my mind as I can go this far next time and I’ve got a reasonable expectation that nothing would happen to me if I do it again.”
Timmons, the police spokeswoman, said, “We completely disagree with this assessment. Our annual internal affairs report demonstrates our emphasis on internal accountability.”
Meanwhile, supervisors continued to document Rollins’ growing stack of use-of-force cases, clearing him in every instance.
Two days after the incident at the house, Rollins tackled a man accused of snatching cigarettes from people on Main Street.
A month later, as a backup officer to a civil disturbance call, he made another takedown.
And again, less than a month after that, he tackled and eventually used a stun gun on a man who Rollins approached because he was standing in the middle of a roadway.
Signs of ‘hypervigilance’
The eighth time Rollins used force last year came on June 3, 2020. That was just days after Rollins fired non-lethal rounds at protesters, while the department was still reviewing that event.
Rollins showed up alone to a call to a house on Farrow Road because of a family fight.
By the time the officer arrived, the fight appeared to be over, according to body cam footage The Post and Courier obtained from a source outside the Police Department.
“This is family business,” said Telvin Mitchell, 27, asking Rollins to leave.
Rollins grabbed Mitchell from the porch. When three others stepped forward, Rollins began struggling with all four of them. His body camera dislodged.
In the department’s report, a sergeant wrote that someone grabbed Rollins from behind and tried choking him while another grabbed at his belt.
The sergeant also wrote that someone was yelling for Rollins to be shot, though Katerra Mitchell said in an interview that her family was pleading for just the opposite: They didn’t want Rollins to shoot her brother.
Rollins took Telvin Mitchell to the ground, using his stun gun on him twice. Police lodged three charges against Mitchell, including felony resisting arrest. Rollins’ supervisors in their report said he should have waited for a backup officer. Lt. Robert Calby wrote that Rollins showed signs of “hypervigilance,” and Rollins was also ordered to sit down with his captain to discuss the recent string of eight incidents in five months.
Asked about that meeting with the captain, Timmons offered few details. “Officer Rollins’ useof-force incidents were reviewed with actions documented, corrected and resolved,” she said. At the time, Holbrook wrote that Rollins’ use of force “appears necessary and reasonable considering the level of resistance and number of non compliant or combative people on scene.” Now, Rollins is behind a desk, assigned to investigative work that includes contacting crime victims. Asked if he could return to patrol, Timmons said that “remains to be determined.”