Lawyer: Deputies were aggressors in scuffle with firefighters

Video of the scuffle between volunteer firefighters and deputy sheriffs at a wreck scene has resulted in finger pointing.

The Herald

CHESTER, S.C. — As the investigation into last month’s scuffle between Chester County volunteer firefighters and sheriff’s deputies continues, the lawyer for the county’s fire chiefs says the dashboard camera video of the incident shows that Sheriff Alex Underwood and his deputies were the aggressors.

But deputies on Monday said they believe the video supports their original stance that the firefighters started the scuffle.

The report from the incident states West Chester fire chief Andy Martin, 57, and his brother, volunteer firefighter Tommy Martin, 61, “pushed and pulled” Capt. Robert Sprouse of the Sheriff’s Office after a verbal argument between the firefighters, deputies and S.C. Highway Patrol officers over who would close a portion of S.C. 9 during the cleanup of a Feb. 14 tractor-trailer accident.

Mark Moore, a former federal prosecutor who is representing the fire chiefs, said Monday that he had been able to view the video The Herald posted online. He was still waiting to view the footage in its entirety but hadn’t been able to receive it from a state agency yet.

“Based on my review of the tape, I believe the tape shows the sheriff’s department behaving in a very aggressive position to the Martin brothers,” Moore said.

In the report, it says, “Sprouse then got in between the sheriff and Thomas Martin and began to escort Thomas Martin away.”

In the video, Underwood steps toward Andy Martin, pointing, and gets very close to him. It appears that Sprouse then pushes Andy Martin enough to make him step back. Tommy Martin then puts his hand on Underwood and another man with Underwood when Sprouse pushes him back three times.

Sprouse’s initial contact with Andy Martin is not included in the report.

A struggle between the Martin brothers and several officers followed, but Andy Martin appears rather calm and isn’t being restrained after a few seconds, although there is no audio with that portion of the video.

The report states that Andy Martin was yelling and cursing at the officer and says, “Captain Sprouse then approached Andrew Martin in the attempt to escort him away from the scene.”

But the video shows Sprouse walks quickly toward Andy Martin, pushes him and begins wrestling him to the ground, where handcuffs were placed on his wrist.

The video’s audio picks up at that point, but it isn’t clear who says what.

The Martin brothers were allowed to remain at the crash site and Andy Martin continued cleaning up the accident scene. The next night, both were arrested and charged with assault.

A few days later, the Chester County fire chiefs asked for involvement from the state Attorney General’s Office, which called on the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate. That investigation is ongoing, said spokesmen for SLED and the attorney general.

“We believe SLED will do a full, complete and thorough investigation and the Attorney General’s Office will review that investigation and make a fair and impartial decision about what happened on the scene and who, if anyone, should be charged,” Moore said.

But, Moore said, everything about the way the situation transpired was “concerning.”

The deputies didn’t come to the accident scene until the Martin brothers made comments over the emergency radio about the 2016 election, in which Underwood may seek a second term as sheriff.

In a letter to the attorney general requesting the investigation, Moore pointed out several South Carolina laws that give authority to firefighters on emergency scenes. Moore asks that the attorney general determine if those laws were violated on Feb. 14 or Feb. 15, when the Martins were arrested, or if anyone committed misconduct while in office.

Moore said the firefighters of Chester County want to work with the sheriff’s office “in a spirit of mutual cooperation and mutual respect.”

Underwood has declined to comment specifically on the incident or the video, aside from saying previously that “assaulting a police officer will never be tolerated.”

In a prepared statement Monday, Underwood said, “The law applies to everyone, regardless of who you are or what profession you are in.

“It is unfortunate that some people think they are entitled to special treatment or that they are above the law,” Underwood said in the statement. “Now that the public has had an opportunity to view the video, we believe it fully supports the sheriff’s original statement.”

While he wouldn’t comment specifically on the Chester County incident, Jarrod Bruder, deputy director of the S.C. Sheriff’s Association, said it isn’t uncommon for officials to have different opinions on how to “achieve the common good” in emergency situations.

“They are supposed to rise to that level (of professionalism),” Bruder said. “You would hope cooler heads would prevail.”

The Martins’ attorney, Dan D’Agostino, and Underwood could not be reached Monday for comment.

Copyright 2014 The Herald
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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