Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) – During a specially called meeting of the town of Pine Ridge’s town council Thursday night, the Public Safety Committee was given the power to handle all personnel matters related to the town’s police officers. Then, the chairmen of that committee, Mayor Robert Wells called officer Johnathan Carswell into an anteroom and terminated him. Next, he summoned interim police chief Eddie Powell into the room and he also left the department. It wasn’t clear if he resigned or was fired.
Prior to this house clearing move, the council had entered into executive session to discuss those employees. Their attorney was present at this meeting. After returning to the public session and gaveling the meeting back to order, the entire council voted to approve the “separation of employment” of Chief Billy Parker. Parker had been out on worker’s compensation after having surgery on both shoulders. Parker had said many times that he didn’t believe he would be able to return to work because he was in constant pain. He said his doctors had no solution to repair the damage to his body he had received after decades of fighting crime and he would never ride a desk and not actively police. Parker had previously worked at Cayce PD and for the SC Highway Patrol. He had first injured his shoulders in a fight with a suspect.
Officer Carswell was given a letter that offered no explanation of his firing. He was on probationary status, and the letter asked that he return all town property by the end of the day. At that point, Carswell stripped to his undershorts and t-shirt and walked out of the room carrying his gun leather and boots only. He quickly changed into some jeans and a shirt his wife had brought while she sat and cried. Carswell’s young son was playing on the floor of the meeting room oblivious to the action that had just changed his family drastically. Former officer Carswell was visibly shaken by the council's action.
When Powell came out of the room, he had a letter in his hand but wouldn’t allow anyone to read it until he had consulted an attorney. He was also turning in all town equipment including his car, guns, keys, and any other items. He did not disrobe as Carswell had. Both were told to clean out their desks quickly and not to enter any areas at the town hall other than public spaces.
Mayor Wells said that the town of Pine Ridge is covered if crimes occur. If a citizen dials 911, they can expect a law enforcement officer from somewhere to respond. They had Captain Kevin Howard, the South Region Commander from the sheriff’s department there Thursday and Wells said he had pre-arranged coverage with the sheriff to have the town protected while all of this was sorted out. They still will use part-time employees, but it isn’t clear who those employees will answer to. When Wells was asked if the town of Pine Ridge had any full-time police officers he answered “no.” He did say that part-time officers would be on duty but they were not scheduled to work on Thursday.
The council also voted in open session to advertise for a new chief. It is unclear when that person can be hired, if he will work another full-time officer beside himself, or just off duty deputies to patrol Pine Ridge. Any other status of the small department is very unclear.
Wells said after the meeting he had little time for comment but would say this. He strongly objected to the way that officer Carswell disrobed in front of Councilmember Beth Sturkie and felt it was more than inappropriate and disrespectful. Even though he had been given a letter demanding that he return all town property by the end of the day, Wells said he could have and should have acted differently. “If he had been anyone else, he would have been arrested,” Wells said after the meeting. Deputies were in the room when this occurred but took no action as Carswell walked out.
Only one citizen was in attendance and spoke on Carswell’s behalf. Ms. Susan Busby said that Officer Carswell was, “An excellent man with good character.” She also said she had perfect trust in him and felt he did his job. She said she felt safer as a citizen knowing that he was on duty and couldn’t understand what the council was doing away with their full-time officers.