It's going to be a long time before the Charleston Police Department forgets Denzel Curnell.
The community will make sure of it.
Earlier this week, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson reviewed the SLED investigation into Curnell's death and declared it a clear case of suicide. Wilson doesn't mess around, and she made the call based on the physical evidence in the case.
There's no reason to doubt her judgment.
But if some people have a hard time accepting that, well, that's on the police.
For nearly a month, Charleston police said next to nothing about a case that had garnered a lot of attention. That's not unusual in incidents where somebody dies around the police.
And even though the physical evidence suggested Curnell shot himself after a scuffle with an off-duty officer, the silence on Lockwood Boulevard raised more suspicions than it allayed.
So now the Charleston police have an image problem. And it didn't have to be that way.
Transparency is best
Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina, says sunshine is critical to a police department's community standing.
He says the Los Angeles Police Department, of all agencies, is an example of how to do it right. Back in its days of turmoil, the department had a policy of holding a news conference within hours of any shooting that involved a police officer. The agency told citizens what officers knew - and what they didn't.
"Transparency is always the best policy, unless the investigation is linked to some ongoing drug deal, or espionage or terrorism," Alpert says. "They should want to talk about it. It's making the community feel as if the police are working for them."
But the police said almost nothing about Curnell's death for the better part of a month. In their defense, the police said it was not appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation. There is some legitimacy to their argument.
But it's not the law.
As the community demanded answers - and hurled accusations - it seems like it would have been good to make an exception and defend the department and its officers. It doesn't seem like that would have been a great risk. After all, SLED found the same thing Charleston police said in an email to City Council members hours after the incident.
Perhaps they were afraid to say one thing had happened and then have an investigation find otherwise. It wouldn't look good.
But it's a pretty safe bet it wouldn't have been any worse than keeping quiet. That hasn't done anyone any good, least of all the Charleston Police Department.
A question of tactics?
Of course, the Curnell incident is far from perfect.
Even people who accept the suicide finding are not sure this was the model of police procedure the city says it was.
Officer Jamal Medlin was off-duty and working security at Bridgeview Apartments when Curnell showed up. (The fact that police are paid so little they have to take second jobs is another issue.)
Medlin said he thought Curnell was suspicious in part because he was wearing a hoodie and long pants, and it was hot. Gee, that sounds a little bit like profiling.
You'd think Medlin might have noticed a lot of kids that age wear long pants year-round, and hoodies are not uncommon either.
Fashion rarely makes sense.
Never mind the fact that casting suspicion on someone because of a hoodie seems ill-advised in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
So Medlin tried to talk to Curnell. Now, it's good advice to heed an officer's request - there's no upside to defying the police. But he did. They scuffled. Medlin got him on the ground. And Curnell apparently reached into his jacket, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
Perhaps Curnell was depressed, and maybe he would have eventually killed himself.
And maybe he wouldn't have. Getting stopped when he wasn't doing anything may have pushed Curnell over the edge.
Medlin probably thinks about that a lot.
As Alpert says, it is the community's right to question the officer's tactics, and whether Curnell was handled appropriately.
More importantly, it is the public's right to get answers.
These questions are going to linger for a long time, and that's a shame.
Policing is a thankless job anyway, and now city cops are going to have to deal with a suspicious community. The Curnell case is going to cast a shadow on a lot of police officers who are just trying to do their jobs.
And it didn't have to be that way.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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