Investigating allegations of racial profiling by Highway Patrol officers

Published: Feb. 27, 2013 at 9:04 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2013 at 9:04 PM EST
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Dashcam video of Dr. Catherine Newkirk's arrest.
Dashcam video of Dr. Catherine Newkirk's arrest.
Dashcam video of Bobby Collins' traffic stop in January.
Dashcam video of Bobby Collins' traffic stop in January.

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Nearly five years after federal indictments uprooted the South Carolina Highway Patrol's leadership, new evidence is uncovered that a former high-ranking patrol official says shows the problem of racial discrimination still exists. 

WIS started investigating complaints of racial discrimination by patrolmen after we uncovered video of the patrol's internal affairs chief from January. In the traffic stop, a trooper cuffed Bobby Collins on suspected DUI, but let him go after the chief passed all the roadside sobriety tests. 

It was the information in those cases former the DPS Chief said explains the way he acted during the January traffic stop. Collins, whose job was to investigate every complaint made against DPS law enforcement, said the Highway Patrol problems of old still exist today.

Collins told the trooper he thought the stop was racially motivated. Collins was fired later that day. Collins said he was in the middle of investigating multiple racial profiling cases when he was stopped last month.

"What you are doing to me now is basically what South Carolina has had a bad reputation for through the years," said Collins. "It's a culture here and even when you realize it, you don't have the humility to say, 'You know what? I made a mistake.'"

DPS Director Leroy Smith fired Collins before the close of business the same day of his traffic stop.  Smith said it was Collins' conduct during the stop that cost him his job.

Collins said looking back at the traffic stop a month later, he has no regrets.

"The problem is, like I alluded to in the traffic stop, there's a greater problem that exists here in South Carolina and Leroy Smith is aware of the problem. I was attempting to address some of those issues and along the way, I was victimized by the same type of culture that I described and that the patrol was actively addressing."

Collins filed an employment complaint against Smith over his firing.

Collins headed the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility and investigated every complaint that came into DPS. Many of those complaints, Collins said, dealt with racial profiling and discrimination.

Collins said he found signs among those cases that some discriminatory conduct and activity existed in the Highway Patrol.

"That's why I alluded to it as a culture because it's still there," he said.

Collins made several points about that training in his stop, he thinks, was racially motivated.

"These classes were not brought out of the air," said Collins. "It's because of the reviews that we've seen. This is why, it's because of situations like this, you all have an innocent man and a fellow employee handcuffed."

Our investigation of the Collins stop and that subsequent training inside the patrol led us to a traffic stop that happened four months ago in Florence County.

What started as a speeding case, quickly became a felony arrest for Dr. Catherine Newkirk and her husband, Jerome, last October.

Trooper J.B. Enzor stopped the couple's black Escalade in a construction zone and charged her with driving 22 miles an hour over the limit.

But it was the statement Catherine made inside her vehicle that landed her and her husband in jail.

"I did tell him that I believe this was racially motivated, and when I said that, he snatched the ticket back and he told me to step out of the vehicle and I did," said Catherine.

Catherine fought her arrest for several minutes, disputing the officer's grounds for taking her to jail.

"We did nothing wrong," said Catherine.

The trooper charged Catherine with resisting arrest and assaulting him and charged her husband with interfering with the arrest.

The video shows Jerome Newkirk walk to within yards of his wife and the trooper, then get back in his SUV once the trooper told him to.

Catherine Newkirk doesn't apologize for fighting the arrest.

"I was amazed," said Catherine. "A lot of things went through my mind, I couldn't think straight. I was completely amazed, it was almost like it was something right off TV."

James McBratney represents the Newkirks and is currently working on a settlement with the Highway Patrol over this stop. Less than two months after the stop, the Florence County Solicitor dropped the charge, finding what he called no prosecutorial merit.

"No one can view the video and come to any other conclusion other than that there was no merit to go forward with the prosecution of Mr. and Mrs. Newkirk," said McBratney.

"Officers have a badge and a gun. They have a lot of power. They need to know how to exercise it in a judicious manner and they didn't do it in this incident."

The Patrol's records show DPS opened an investigation into Trooper Enzor's stop and the charges he made. Bobby Collins investigated the case and says he handed it over to director Leroy Smith in early December.

On Feb. 12, the day we filed an open records request for the Enzor file, DPS records show Smith suspended Enzor for 10 days and demoted him to senior trooper. The Patrol says it wasn't a case of discrimination, but a case where the trooper was discourteous and made an unlawful arrest.

We've asked for an interview with Smith concerning the racial discrimination allegations here but the director's PR contact, Sherri Iacobelli, denied our request. The Patrol released these records to us on Wednesday. In them, it shows ten racial profiling complaints within the Patrol in the past year. Of those, four were "unfounded" by the Patrol and four are still open investigations. Only one case, according to these Patrol records, the trooper was completely exonerated.

Collins says after the patrol reviewed the Newkirk case, the Patrol implemented statewide training for troopers.

The Highway Patrol ordered trooper Enzor to take anger management classes. Meanwhile, the Newkirk's attorney is working with the Patrol's insurance claims department to negotiate a settlement.

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.