NAACP, Denzel Curnell's stepfather call for focus on police 'stop-and-frisk' policies

Dwayne German, stepfather of Denzel Curnell, speaks to the media after the Charleston branch of the NAACP held a news conference Monday. Buy this photo

When he woke up June 21, Dwayne German learned that his stepson had died of a gunshot wound the night before and that a revolver was missing from his house.

He learned little else about the death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell during the next few weeks as authorities withheld information that could answer his questions.

Search-and-seizure

The Charleston Police Department's search-and-seizure field guide poses factors that officers can consider in deciding whether a suspect might be up to criminal activity and could be stopped and possibly frisked. "Each one taken alone may or may not be enough, but taken together can justify the stop. Consider the totality of the circumstances!" the policy states. These are the possible factors:

1. Officer's knowledge of recent criminal conduct.

2. Personal experience of the officer.

3. Suspicious conduct/furtive movement of the suspect.

4. Nonresponsive or nervous behavior, shaking, sweating for no reason.

5. Attempts to flee.

6. Implausible/false answers upon questioning.

7. Location near crime scene, alarm sounding or in a high-crime area.

8. Time of day and location of a given situation.

9. Clothing of the suspect (big coat in summer).

10. Gang affiliation signs (clothing, tattoos, gestures).

11. Knowledge of the suspect, including prior criminal history and reputation.

"I had to pick out his casket and be a pallbearer for my own son," he said. "And I still didn't know why he was gone."

German still didn't understand last week, when authorities ruled the death a suicide and defended why Officer Jamal Medlin approached Curnell outside the Bridgeview Village apartments.

Curnell's hooded sweatshirt in the summertime heat had first raised the officer's suspicion.

Curnell suffered a gunshot wound during an ensuing struggle, prompting German to wonder if his stepson would still be alive if the confrontation never happened.

That's why he donned a hooded sweatshirt Monday and stood next to NAACP officials as they announced plans to ask for a federal probe into the "stop-and-frisk" policies involved in the encounter.

The civil rights organization likened the practice to racial profiling, and past encounters like Curnell's have been ruled unconstitutional.

"The stop-and-frisk policy clearly labels young black men who don't look right to a police officer as criminals," said Joseph Darby, first vice president of the Charleston NAACP branch. "That's clear and evident racial profiling."

The Charleston Police Department continued to defend Medlin's actions, reiterating Monday that the consensual encounter was based on observations by a trained officer, agency spokesman Charles Francis said. The department's policies also guard people's civil liberties, he said.

"The department adamantly and unequivocally disagrees with the characterization of this event as racial profiling," Francis said.

'Community concern'


The NAACP's move comes the week after authorities released reports on their findings. The Post and Courier acquired many of the documents through requests under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

The organization will gather accounts of alleged racial profiling during a meeting Thursday and will request a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, local leaders said. They might also ask the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina to consider a lawsuit to halt certain police practices.

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the local ACLU, said a lawsuit over New York City's stop-and-frisk policies resulted from a coalition that documented the practice for years.

"We do not have such documentation here, to the best of my knowledge," Middleton said Monday.

Medlin was working an off-duty security job at Bridgeview Village when he saw Curnell wearing a black hoodie. Part of the officer's job was to make sure people belong in the privately owned community.

After Medlin drove up to Curnell on North Romney Street, Curnell refused to follow the officer's orders, including a command to take his right hand out of his pocket. Medlin saw the concealed hand as a possible threat, he later wrote in a statement.

A struggle followed.

With Medlin pinning him to the pavement, Curnell revealed his right hand and shot himself, the officer said.

The State Law Enforcement Division's investigation ended last week after a 298-page report indicated that the death was a suicide, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.

While they still questioned investigators' findings, NAACP leaders focused Monday on policing measures that they said unfairly target black people.

Charleston's stop-and-frisk policy lays out factors that officers can consider in deciding whether someone might be involved in criminal activity. Among them is a person's clothing.

"We're not holding the Police Department to a higher standard than any of the other citizens of this state should," said Dot Scott, president of the NAACP's Charleston branch. "It's a community concern."

'Many inconsistencies'


Civil rights experts and activists have said that Medlin didn't have "reasonable suspicion" to stop Curnell under the Fourth Amendment. They said his clothing and his refusal to take his hand out of his pocket were not enough. Twelve years ago, judges overturned an Upstate man's criminal convictions for similar constitutional reasons.

In the late 1990s, police officers in Laurens were checking people in a parking lot for arrest warrants by asking them for identification. Kenneth Andrew Burton refused to hand over his ID or to take his hand out of his pocket. During a scuffle, a gun fell from Burton's pocket.

He pointed it at the officer and pulled the trigger, but it was jammed. Burton was found guilty at trial and sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison. But his state and federal convictions later were tossed out.

"He did refuse to talk with the policemen and to remove his hand from his pocket," a federal judge wrote, "but something more is required to establish reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot."

Attorney Andy Savage, who represents Curnell's family, is investigating alternative explanations to suicide and exploring the reason for the confrontation with Medlin, he said.

German couldn't accept that his stepson committed suicide. Curnell had struggled with homesickness during Army basic training in December, but German said his stepson wasn't depressed on the night of his death.

"I truly believe that there are too many inconsistencies," he said. "To bury your dead and just go away - I can't do that."

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