Citizens honored for helping officer in Spartanburg Walmart attack, legislation proposed on public official threats

Southeast Region

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (WSPA) – Citizens who helped a police officer in a 2020 Walmart attack were honored on Monday, as officials discussed proposed legislation on officer threats.

We previously reported officers were called to Walmart on Dorman Centre Drive about a disturbance and a fight in Aug. 2020.

The call was later upgraded to an officer down call. The off-duty officer, Erin Hansen, was working security for Walmart, when he was attacked by a suspect in the store, according to Spartanburg Police.

According to the Spartanburg County Solicitor’s Office, the man assaulted the uniformed city police officer without provocation as the officer stood near the self-checkout line.

Police said the man, later identified as James Ray Cunningham, 22, of Woodruff, was charged in the incident.

Several bystanders who witnessed the attack pulled Cunningham off the unconscious officer. The bystanders stopped the attack while others in the store called 911. Cunningham punched a customer several times before fleeing the store.

“We had citizens that not only said something but they did something. They prevented him from further injury and possibly even the loss of his life,” said Spartanburg Police Chief Alonzo Thompson.

On Monday, four of the citizens who helped were honored. They are now recipients of the Bill Barnet award for their heroic actions.

“Everybody is calling me a hero, but I just did what was instinctual. You know, I could not see somebody being hurt like that and just watch,” said William Strong, Bill Barnet award recipient.

“I am just extremely grateful, I mean, I owe them the world,” said Officer Erin Hansen with the Spartanburg Police Department.   

Solicitor Barry Barnette, Sheriff Chuck Wright and Spartanburg police Chief Alonzo Thompson hosted a press conference on Monday to honor the citizens as well as discuss a proposed legislation to strengthen state law for offenders who threaten public officials. Spartanburg Rep. Max Hyde authored the legislation.

(WSPA photo)

Currently, the state has a law for threatening a public official that carries up to a five-thousand dollar fine or up to five years behind bars if convicted. Officials are now pushing to increase that punishment with a new bill if someone takes action on that threat to harm others.

“We would like to ask our legislators, as well as our governor to take a look at it and look at passing the bill to get extra protection to people, our public employees and people that serve the people, and we need that,” said Solicitor Barry Barnette.

If the proposed bill is passed, anyone found guilty of threatening and carrying out a threat could face up to 30-years in prison.

“This must be accompanied by an overt act. So, that’s what’s different about it and it must be directly related to the public officials’ public responsibilities,” explained Representative Max Hyde, District 32, Spartanburg.   

“It should be a more enhanced penalty because they have taken that extra step to go forward and to carry out a threat to actually make it happen,” said Barnette.

Steps are now being taken to add this new distinction because of incidents similar to the one that occurred last year at Walmart in Spartanburg. The new law, if passed, could help further punish those who commit similar crimes.

Representative Max Hyde with the state says he is hopeful that the proposed bill will be an item on the agenda for the Subcommittee on Criminal Laws in the near future.

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