Soon after a Charleston police commander showed up at the scene where Denzel Curnell was shot, she realized how community members might get upset about his death, the city's police chief said Monday.
A different officer had been there outside the Bridgeview Village apartments Friday night when a bullet fatally struck the 19-year-old's head. The policeman radioed for help as a crowd amassed. Some residents already were upset.
And when the commander noticed something about the circumstances of Curnell's death, she called in an outside agency to investigate the shooting "to avoid any possible concerns that could be voiced," Police Chief Greg Mullen explained at a news conference.
Instead, the residents voiced many concerns that persisted Monday despite authorities' attempts to quell them and assure the public that the officer had done nothing wrong.
For days, the outside investigators from the State Law Enforcement Division said little about the death, and the Charleston Police Department said nothing to the public. The city's investigators handled evidence-gathering at the scene.
Rumors swirled. Some said Curnell had killed himself with his own gun, which the police said they found. Others said the officer had shot him. Some said he was killed during a struggle with the policeman.
Mullen, though, said no information had implicated the officer in Curnell's death and indicated that he fired a gun. Lamenting that inaccurate versions of the event had stirred distrust and created "a divide between the police and the community," he asked residents to wait until the investigation is done before drawing conclusions.
"Then we are reacting to facts and not responding to rumors," he said. "I am confident ... they will see that the officer's actions were appropriate and that this was a very tragic situation that no one will ever completely understand."
In the meantime, Mullen and other authorities on Monday offered new information about the shooting in an attempt to ease residents' concerns, but it did little to that end. Many of the details remained uncertain.
Charleston County's coroner, Rae Wooten, said Curnell had been shot in the head, not the back.
Residents of the community on North Romney Street said Curnell had his back turned to the officer when he was shot in the head. Wooten did not say where in the head the bullet hit Curnell.
Also still undetermined, Wooten said, was Curnell's manner of death, such as suicide, homicide or accidental. Police spokesman Charles Francis said in an email to city leaders around 12:24 a.m. Saturday that the case was being investigated as a "possible suicide."
Francis also said in the message that he would send any updates. But City Council members said they never got any, leading to suspicion among some of them about what was happening.
"We are hearing exactly nothing at this point," Councilman Marvin Wagner, whose district includes parts of West Ashley, said Monday. "Hopefully the facts will be released to all soon."
But Mayor Joe Riley, in a statement, echoed Mullen's comments while he sympathized with Curnell's family. Only after the SLED probe wraps up, Riley said, will it be appropriate for the "members of our splendid police department to fully comment on what occurred."
Life 'cut down'
A resident of Wilson Avenue in downtown Charleston, Curnell had recently completed basic training for the U.S. Army in Fort Benning, Ga., relatives said Monday.
He liked playing video games and rarely ventured outside. He had never been arrested.
But on Friday night, he went to the North Romney Street apartment complex about two miles from his home to visit friends and family members.
He had once lived in Bridgeview Village, a former public housing development known as Bayside Manor.
Though suicide didn't make sense to his aunt, Sylvia Campbell, she said investigators had assured her family that they were looking into all aspects of his death.
"He wanted to travel in the military," Campbell said. "He wanted to get married and have children. His life was cut down at an early age."
The officer there when he died, Jamal A. Medlin, was placed on paid leave in the wake of the shooting, which the police department spokesman said was standard in such situations. Medlin has been with the city force since June 2011.
He was working an off-duty job Friday night when he reported the gunshot that killed Curnell, according to the incident report released Monday. Bridgeview Village has hired uniformed officers in the past to provide security in the area long plagued by violence.
Medlin said into his police radio around 10:32 p.m. that shots had been fired, the document stated. Someone was down.
"Medlin further advised that a large crowd was gathering," the report stated, "and he needed additional units for crowd control."
Patrol officers in the area responded to his call.
Lonese Lang, 21, Curnell's sister, happened upon the aftermath as she arrived in the community to spend the night at a friend's home.
She saw the officer and a man on the pavement outside Building 127. She heard the officer radio for help.
"I didn't know it was my brother when I saw someone lying on the ground," Lang said. "I saw the officer had his gun drawn at him."
The first backup officer arrived to the sight of Medlin standing behind his cruiser, according to the report. Curnell lay face down in the street in front of the car. He wasn't moving.
Officers found a firearm at the scene, though Mullen declined to say what kind of gun it was. Its value was estimated at $200, and its manufacturer was redacted from the report.
The police chief declined to say what observation by the supervisor led her to call SLED about an hour after the shooting. But Mullen called it a "wise and prudent decision."
City crime-scene technicians controlled the collection of evidence at the scene as a practical matter, he said. SLED's crew couldn't get there for another three hours, Mullen said, so its agents agreed to let city investigators comb the site for clues about what happened.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry, who said Monday only that the investigation was continuing, confirmed that commanders from both agencies had agreed on how the scene should be handled.
Regardless, the shooting led some community members to hit the streets protesting the way police approached the ordeal.
Lang, Curnell's sister, also struggled to cope with the prospect that her brother had killed himself.
He had remained upbeat, she mentioned, even after their mother died of cervical cancer in January 2013. Months later, he graduated from Burke High School.
"I couldn't tell you what happened because I don't know," Lang said. "I just want the truth."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Statement from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley
My heart goes out to the family of Denzel Curnell. It is so very sad to have a young life ended. Denzel and his family and friends are in our thoughts and prayers. Chief Mullen immediately informed me of Denzel's death and the circumstances. We are, as usual, in constant communication. Because the City police officer was at the scene, normal protocol requires that this matter be investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division ("SLED"). They are in control of the investigation. It is not appropriate for the City to present the complete details until SLED's investigation is concluded. I am completely confident that the results of the SLED investigation will conclude that the City of Charleston police officer's actions were proper in all circumstances.
As soon as the SLED investigation is completed, it will then be appropriate for Chief Mullen and the appropriate members of our splendid police department to fully comment on what occurred.
Denzel “Jaba” Curnell, 19, was fatally shot Friday night after an encounter with a police officer in downtown Charleston.×
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen addressed the media Monday at police headquarters about the shooting death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell. Mullen asked residents to wait for the facts of the investigation to come out before drawing conclusions.×