Word of Denzel "Jaba" Curnell's death in downtown Charleston spread within minutes last weekend, and much of it was wrong.
On Twitter, one person said a 13-year-old boy had been shot by a police officer. To a utility pole at the scene, a girl pinned a letter saying Curnell had been shot in the back while surrendering. In an online petition, nearly 4,000 supporters called for authorities to prosecute the officer "who killed an innocent child."
On the night of Curnell's death, a Charleston Police Department spokesman told city leaders that Curnell might have killed himself. Then, when the police were asked to explain, silence.
In the following week, community members dominated the story line as the police stood by and grew frustrated by what they heard. The police officer, who was working an off-duty job at the site when Curnell died, became a pariah in the neighborhood he was hired to protect.
Because the state took over the investigation, the residents said they had good reason to suspect wrongdoing.
But by keeping quiet and shrouding the probe in secrecy, the authorities further alienated the community and created a perception of misconduct in an ordeal they insist was handled properly. It sparked more of the very suspicion they wanted to avoid and made the loss more difficult for Curnell's family to bear, advocates said.
"The police are going to assume that a black male wearing a hoodie in 90-degree weather is up to no good," said Andy Savage, an attorney for Curnell's family. "The community is going to hear that a black male got shot near a police officer and assume that the police officer shot him for no reason."
The authorities dispelled some of the myths. Curnell, 19, had been shot in the head, not in the back, during an encounter June 20 with the officer at the Bridgeview Village apartments. The police assured the community that the officer had done nothing wrong. But, like the community, they offered little information to confirm their stance. They wouldn't say if the security cameras at the scene had caught anything. They wouldn't discuss forensic evidence. They wouldn't release dispatch tapes revealing the authorities' response.
When the truth finally is known, Charleston's top leader said the skepticism won't linger. Mayor Joe Riley, rather, expects residents to thank the police officials who had angered them. But now, he said, isn't the time for those officials to break protocol and discuss the facts.
"A law enforcement officer's duty is not to be pressured into doing something that's wrong under any circumstance," Riley said. "If the circumstance is protecting the credibility and thoroughness and impartiality of the investigation, then that's the officer's duty."
Knew it was coming
Already facing questions about how officers handled the death scene, the authorities' next move prompted more curiosity.
Officer Jamal Medlin had come across Curnell outside the apartment complex on North Romney Avenue, and Curnell died of a gunshot wound during the encounter around 10:30 p.m., the police said.
They didn't say, though, what happened between the two. A State Law Enforcement Division spokesman said the incident was reported to agents as a struggle resulting in gunfire.
Instead of waiting three hours for SLED's crime-scene investigators to show up, agents agreed to let the police gather forensic evidence - a practical decision, Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
But Savage and Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP branch, said the move raised more eyebrows.
"You can add 2 and 2," Scott said, "and ... if it's not 4, then there's still questions."
Not every death in an officer's presence requires SLED's involvement, police spokesman Charles Francis said.
In May 2011, two police officers were inside a West Ashley home when self-proclaimed preacher Arthur F. Peterson Jr. fatally shot a woman. SLED agents never were called, Francis said, because another witness was there and "the officers' encounter with the suspect was not directly connected with the actions of the suspect or the death of the victim."
In Curnell's shooting, which happened during the encounter, Francis said, "we knew there would be questions from the community."
But did the encounter directly lead to the shooting? Francis could not answer, he said, because SLED is still investigating.
During the past week, public relations expert Elizabeth Boineau, who heads E. Boineau & Co. in Charleston, watched what she called a crisis unfold for the city. She saw authorities declining to answer questions.
For any government in such a predicament, she said it's best to provide as much information that's "legally and reasonably" available and to show "care, concern and compassion."
Not answering questions, she said, can create a suspicion of wrongdoing when there is none.
"The fury that the community feels is being fueled by the quiet," Boineau said. "The more quiet there is, the more furious they become. ... In that vacuum, all logic leaves the room."
Without the answers its members sought, the neighborhood created its own version of what happened.
A 10-year-old girl told The Post and Courier that she used a pencil and white lined paper to write two accounts of Curnell getting shot in the back. She posted the letters to a utility pole at the scene.
Residents and journalists snapped photos of her notes and posted them online.
Two days later, the police chief and Coroner Rae Wooten refuted the account, but they ventured no further into the facts they knew.
For the public, getting answers to other questions has been difficult.
Did any DNA clues indicate what happened? Did gunshot residue show who might have fired a gun? Was there any video?
Mullen said Monday during his news conference that SLED Chief Mark Keel and Wooten likely would release more information before the probe's end.
That didn't happen last week, though, and spokesman Thom Berry said SLED usually waits to comment on a case until prosecutors decide whether to file charges.
Until then, discussing particulars of the probe, such as whether surveillance footage even exists, would be inappropriate, Berry said.
"We certainly understand and appreciate the concern being expressed," he said. "But it is a standard practice for our agency that when we begin an investigation, we do not discuss details."
The attorney representing Curnell's family also has struggled to get the information that could ease relatives' and residents' minds.
Savage revealed that Curnell was homesick and on suicide watch before his discharge from Army basic training in December. That development could be a reason to suspect suicide, Savage said, and was more insightful than any information the police have offered about the manner of death they alleged.
Curnell's family members still question why the left-handed young man, who they think had his stepfather's .38-caliber revolver that night, would shoot himself in the right side of his head.
Savage learned those specifics of the wounds after seeing Curnell's body. But the coroner later intercepted his attempt to speak with the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy, he said.
An employee with Savage's law firm also was met with resistance when she asked for the police report that was widely distributed to the media. She was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request, though state law requires the police to release such a report without requiring a written request.
Francis, the police spokesman, said an agency employee couldn't find the document because Curnell's name wasn't on it, so the worker asked for a written FOIA request.
"This is a standard procedure when a member of the public walks into the Police Department requesting a public document," Francis said.
Charleston police officials have long resisted divulging information after one of their own officers is involved in a shooting.
Through FOIA requests in Curnell's death, The Post and Courier has requested county dispatch recordings, emails between city and police officials, police video and any footage SLED collected, autopsy findings and the officer's personnel file. City, county and state agencies had not responded to the requests by Friday.
After a shooting in which both an officer and a suspect were wounded last year in West Ashley, the police denied the newspaper's FOIA requests for similar information because SLED was investigating - a reason that S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender said isn't a legal one for withholding information. SLED eventually fulfilled the requests for the city.
Savage's trouble in obtaining the report further showed the department's unwillingness to "clarify the facts," he later told Francis in an email that was shared with the newspaper.
"Your lack of transparency has caused many in the community to assume that the officer was in the wrong," Savage wrote. "I am not so convinced, but your reluctance to be transparent has caused needless anxiety, including false rumors which are rampant in some neighborhoods."
Scott, the NAACP official who has long been critical of local authorities, stopped short last week of levying accusations.
"We do not have all the information ... to make an informed decision about what did happen," she said. "SLED will know. The Police Department already knows."
Frustration was the most apparent on the faces of Curnell's family during an NAACP news conference last week.
His stepfather, Dwayne German, pleaded for an end to the silence that has prolonged his grief. Lonese Lang, Curnell's 21-year-old sister, also cried out and collapsed. The wildly varying stories had confused Lang, she said earlier in the week. Investigators' failure to keep her family in the loop was even more baffling to her.
"There are all kinds of stories," she said, "and I don't know what to believe."
Denzel “Jaba” Curnell, 19, seen in basic training for the U.S. Army, was fatally shot after an encounter with a police officer in downtown Charleston.×
Lonese Lang (center) broke down during an NAACP news conference. She said she has heard many stories about the death of her brother, Denzel Curnell, and she doesn’t know what to believe.×
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