The Myrtle Beach man who was shot nine times by drug agents in 2015 called off a speech Sunday after city officials agreed to issue a public apology to him, the man’s attorney said.
Julian Betton, who is paralyzed from the waist down, had planned to speak about police accountability outside City Hall at 1 p.m. But instead he met with Mayor Brenda Bethune and other city officials for about an hour. Afterwards, his attorney said city leaders had invited Betton to a council meeting and agreed to issue a public apology for the shooting that nearly took his life.
“The City of Myrtle Beach is still hurting,” Betton’s attorney Jonny McCoy said. “Number two, the city of Myrtle Beach is trying to gain police control of what’s going on on the boulevard and in the city. And we want to ensure that they don’t lose sight of what overstepping constitutional laws and what government overreach and police brutality could lead to. Julian being here reminded the city, yes, it’s important to get crime under control, but it’s also important to stick to the constitution and people’s civil liberties. … Most importantly, this was about getting closure for Julian and the city and the African-American community as a whole.”
Myrtle Beach City Councilman Gregg Smith participated in the meeting and said he personally apologized to Betton.
"What happened to Julian Betton was a tragedy," he said. "It was not right. He deserves to know that we understand that and that we apologize for what happened to him."
Smith was not on council when Betton was shot, but he said it's important that city officials acknowledge what took place.
"This is a meeting that needed to happen," he said. "I'm glad it happened. I think we all learned from it. I think we're all better people because we had the meeting. I'm just looking forward to moving Myrtle Beach into a better position."
Bethune offered a prepared statement about the meeting on Sunday afternoon.
"I was blessed to share a few moments with Julian and I listened to his story," she said. "That gave me an opportunity to learn about the man he is today and to see the impact that his incident, as well as similar events, have had on him emotionally. Mr. Betton is a member of our community, a strong advocate for change and a person who wants, and deserves, to be heard. Today’s meeting was a demonstration that peaceful diplomacy works. I want to say that Julian has been heard and will be part of our path to a better future. I am committed, along with other members of Council and our Police Department, to working with Julian to tell his story so that others can see that together we can create change by being caring and empathetic."
The Rev. Tim McCray, a community activist in Myrtle Beach, praised the Sunday morning meeting at City Hall.
“This is moving in the right steps for the city,” he said. “Hopefully out of this we can work on how we continue building these relationships … especially when it comes to the African-American communities. How do we bridge the gap?”
Along with an apology, McCoy said his client also spoke with city officials about changing their enforcement approach for low-level drug crimes. Specifically, they discussed the possibility of writing tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana rather than taking them to jail.
Smith said the city did not commit to making a policy change but officials did agree to research the matter. He said McCoy made a compelling argument.
"The way he explains it, it sounds reasonable," he said.
Betton reached an $8.5 million settlement with the city in February. However, after resolving his lawsuit he chose not to speak publicly about his case until the death of George Floyd.
Floyd was the 46-year-old Minnesota man who died while being detained by police last week. The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck while he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” has been charged with third-degree murder.
The incident touched off protests across the country.
The city of Myrtle Beach declared a state of civil emergency on Sunday afternoon, citing threats of violence.
However, a group of more than 150 protesters marched down Mr. Joe White Avenue Sunday morning and the event was calm.
"I am so proud of the way our community voiced their frustrations this morning during a very peaceful protest," Bethune said in her prepared statement. "We are a strong and caring community of faith and we will work together to be an example to others."
The drug agents who shot Betton were never charged with a crime.
The shooting happened at Betton’s Withers Swash apartment on April 16, 2015.
Drug Enforcement Unit (DEU) agents came to Betton’s apartment looking for drugs. A confidential informant had purchased marijuana from Betton on two prior occasions and authorities had obtained warrants for his arrest, according to public records.
Court records indicate the DEU didn’t have a formal policy for executing search warrants when Betton was shot. Police can obtain no-knock warrants, but agents had a standard warrant when they raided Betton’s apartment that day. That means they would have been required to knock and announce themselves before entering.
Police initially said they had knocked on Betton's door and announced themselves. When they went inside, they said he started shooting at them, prompting them to return fire.
However, the evidence revealed the officers’ accounts were not accurate. Although there’s no body camera or dash cam video of the shooting, Betton had a surveillance system at his apartment and that video depicts what happened outside the home.
“They had lied and lied and lied and lied again,” said Burton Craige, an attorney with Patterson Harkavy, a North Carolina firm that worked with Myrtle Beach-based McCoy on the case, during a news conference in February.
The video shows the officers directing one of Betton's neighbors to get on the ground. One officer then opens a screen door before another rams Betton’s front door. The video does not show an officer knocking. The video has no audio, so it’s unclear what, if anything, was said.
A neighbor who was on the ground told state investigators that the drug agents never knocked or identified themselves as police.
Betton has said he had a gun in his apartment, but he denied shooting at the police.
A State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigation determined Betton told the truth: He never fired his weapon.
Yet an independent prosecutor who reviewed the case concluded that the agents who shot Betton — David Belue, Frank Waddell and Chris Dennis — acted in self defense.
Belue still works for the Myrtle Beach Police Department.
During a hearing in the civil case in September, federal judges described the case as “horrendous” and “outrageous.”
“How is this case a bad guess in a gray area under our law?” Judge Barbara Milano Keenan said. “It doesn’t even seem to be a guess. They just came in to unload on this guy.”
Betton initially sued the city, Solicitor Jimmy Richardson and the Drug Enforcement Unit. The DEU is an agency made up of officers from departments throughout the region. In 2018, Betton reached a settlement with two of the agents who shot him and several leaders of the DEU for $2.75 million. His final dispute was with the city and officer Belue and a trial had been scheduled to begin in January. However, the settlement was reached prior to a trial.
The total amount of settlement money was $11.25 million.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Tim McCray participated in the meeting with Julian Betton. McCray was inside City Hall but he was not participating in the meeting.