If a Charleston police officer had not confronted him for wearing a hoodie in the summertime heat, Denzel Curnell's death last month might have been avoided, civil liberties advocates and experts said Tuesday.
Curnell, 19, shot himself June 20 during a struggle with Officer Jamal Medlin outside the Bridgeview Village apartments, according to authorities.
Medlin had taken note of the young man's long pants and the sweatshirt hood over his head. He found Curnell's dress "odd" and a sign of possible criminal behavior.
But local activists regarded as offensive any police action prompted by clothing widely worn by young black men, and a nationally known civil liberties expert called it "classic stereotyping." The officer also is black.
Samuel Walker, a Nebraska criminal justice professor who has testified about New York City's "stop-and-frisk" policies, said such clothing "has no foundation in terms of suspected criminal activity."
"There was no reason for the initial stop," Walker said. "Without any clear justification, everything that happened after that should not have happened."
Community members and observers Tuesday called on the Charleston Police Department for a better accounting of the episode and a review of the practices that led to it. While the city's police chief, Greg Mullen, stood by Medlin's approach to ensuring that Curnell belonged in the high-crime neighborhood, he vowed to mend the relationships that might have been strained because of it.
"We'll have officers ... getting out of their cars, talking to people, becoming more one-on-one," he said during a news conference this week. "We want to treat everyone the way that we would like to be treated."
Among observers, though, Curnell's death has raised questions about a "pervasive syndrome" nationwide of profiling based on someone's appearance, said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
She noted an ACLU report that found young black men were four times more likely to get arrested for simple marijuana possession than their white counterparts, even though they don't use the drug more.
"We can't write this off as one isolated, tragic occurrence," Middleton said. "To have enhanced safety, you have to have trust, and you have to find other means of community policing than what happened in this case."
'Seems pretty weak'
When he saw Curnell around 10:30 p.m., Medlin knew that people often dress in layers when they commit certain crimes.
Such criminals can use clothing to mask their appearance or hide weapons. They could shed the apparel to again change their look as they run away.
Medlin, who was working an off-duty security job, further noted in a written statement that it was 85 degrees, and Curnell looked overdressed.
But after Medlin followed the man behind an apartment building, the hood of Curnell's sweatshirt was no longer on his head. Curnell was "lingering" behind the building, he wrote, but it's unknown how long Curnell had been there.
The former resident still had loved ones there, and his sister was spending that night at a resident's home. But kicking out people who don't belong has helped drive down crime in the community, Mullen later said.
"Officers ... notice people who appear to be lingering or loitering," he said, "to ensure people are supposed to be there and not just wandering around the property."
But Walker, who works at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said someone like Curnell shouldn't be singled out just because of his clothing. Walker testified a year ago about New York City's policy through which young men were sometimes stopped for wearing certain clothes in high-crime areas.
"A neighborhood is a place," he said, "not a behavior."
After getting Curnell's attention, Medlin said he asked him to take his hand out of his pocket. When Curnell didn't, the officer pulled out his gun, he wrote.
Courts have ruled that before stopping someone, officers must have "reasonable suspicion" that someone has committed or is about to perpetrate a crime, said Colin Miller, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina. Running from the police in a historically violent and drug-riddled neighborhood, for example, could serve as that suspicion.
But neither Curnell's clothing nor his refusal to remove his hand from his pocket seemed to give that suspicion, Miller said.
"Here, it's a high-crime area, but the only other reason was that he had a hoodie and it's hot," he said. "That seems pretty weak."
'Doing his job'
During the struggle, Curnell managed to keep his hand in his pocket until investigators said he shot himself with his stepfather's revolver.
He weighed 145 pounds, his family's attorney said. Medlin was about 300 pounds during his time playing football at Clemson University more than three years ago.
Hoping to handcuff the man, Medlin was kneeling over him and looking backward to holster his gun when Curnell shot himself, he wrote.
Investigators later found gunshot residue, the tiny particles that a fired round gives off, on Curnell's hand and not on Medlin's. Deputy Charleston County Coroner Kimberly Rhoton added Tuesday that the death was formally ruled a suicide.
While Mayor Joe Riley later decried Curnell's death, he said Medlin had acted appropriately, as he and Mullen had suspected from the start.
"I commend Officer Jamal Medlin, who was doing his job," Riley said this week, "a job that these men and women do every day to ... make our community safe."
But parts of the officer's narrative have perplexed community activists, who lamented an eroded trust between residents and the police.
Dot Scott, president of the NAACP's Charleston branch, took exception to city officials who approved of Medlin's reason for approaching Curnell. She called it a "new low" for the police and an "affront to the black community."
"You can't tell us that this civilian did nothing wrong to be stopped other than dressing in traditional clothing ... and tell us the officer did a wonderful job in profiling someone," she said. "We just can't swallow that."
Thomas Dixon, an activist who leads The Coalition: People United To Take Back Our Community, has seen anger among residents. They have struggled, he said, to grasp how the authorities handled the investigation and their explanation for the confrontation between Medlin and Curnell.
"Had (the officer) not made an assumption about Denzel Curnell based on his attire, then this situation might never have happened," Dixon said. "That makes it hard for advocates to turn around and tell people they need to trust the police department."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.
Dot Scott, the president of the Charleston NAACP branch, speaks last week during a news conference in which the NAACP discussed the investigation into the shooting death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell during a June 20 encounter with a Charleston police officer outside the Bridgeview Village apartments.×
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