Curnell probe

The local NAACP will provide an update in its plans to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell and "the actions of the Charleston Police Department," branch officials said this week.

It will come during a meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28 at Morris Brown AME Church at 13 Morris St. in downtown Charleston.

The Charleston branch of the civil-rights organization has raised questions about why an officer approached Curnell on June 20 outside the Bridgeview Village apartments. During an ensuing struggle, Curnell died of a gunshot wound from a revolver he had been carrying. His death was ruled a suicide.

NAACP officials will discuss its progress in filing a formal request with the DOJ during a regular monthly meeting, and they invited all members of the public to attend.

Andrew Knapp

Across the nation, many in black communities are watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, with a particular history and cultural experience in mind.

In the Charleston area, perceptions of the killing of Michael Brown are informed by this history, leading some to express profound concern for the ways in which law enforcement and neighborhood residents interact.

Protests in Ferguson were sparked by the fatal shooting of Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, by police officer Darren Wilson. Brown's killing, and the subsequent response to the protests, has resulted in a federal investigation, involvement by state troopers, widespread calls for police departments nationwide to demilitarize and much soul-searching.

Jamal Middleton, 42, of North Charleston said he has endured or witnessed his share of unfair police behavior. He grew up on Charleston's East Side, a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood. Like all residents of the area, he was socialized and educated in part by what he lived through.

"That education involved police brutality, every Friday night," he said. Police would roll through the neighborhood and waylay or threaten young people, looking for drugs. Altercations often would ensue, and arrests.

"Yes there were drugs there, but there are drugs everywhere, we know that now," said Middleton, who's now a businessman and community activist. It was obvious to him and his friends that police were patrolling the neighborhood because it was black, he said.

Often, Middleton would leave the neighborhood on foot for one reason or another. "The minute I got across Meeting Street or Huger Street, here comes a cop out of nowhere," he said. "One morning, going to school, I was stopped on Huger street for no reason by this cop who wanted to search my bag. He was trying to get an arrest. I'm standing there and I'm pissed, I'm boiling."

Shedding prejudice

Probably that was similar to the last emotion Michael Brown felt before his death, Middleton said. "He had enough, he could not take it anymore. If he lashed out at the cop, that's why, he was tired of being harassed."

Middleton said too often law enforcement officers stop black men merely to assert their power, not because they have a valid reason.

"That's the experience of every black man, for decades," he said. "We fit a description. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say, 'I better be careful today.' "

Lee Moultrie, a 57-year-old community activist, said police officers, like all people, are a product of their era, upbringing and geography. If they have internalized prejudice, it is difficult to shed it.

"They are not going to take the time to delve into the issues in each interaction," Moultrie said. "So situations escalate real fast, unnecessarily."

Then, making matters worse for blacks is a system geared to protecting the status quo, he said.

Too often, "no one is there to hold these guys accountable," Moultrie said. "There are no social or civil rights agencies rallying around residents. We're fending for ourselves against an institution."

Mutual respect

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said law enforcement practices have changed significantly over the years. Early in his 30-year career he received complaints from black communities that deputies didn't patrol neighborhoods pro-actively, that they only arrived in response to "some serious situation." And then interrogations too often lacked sensitivity for the issues faced by these communities.

"That's far from the case now," Cannon said. Beginning in the 1980s, law enforcement initiated community initiatives in order to hear concerns and build trust.

There's always more police officers can do, but the responsibility for community safety is shared, he added. An entertainment culture that promotes violence surely is no help, and young men in the streets sometimes opt for confrontation over mutual respect.

Monica Jefferson, secretary of the local National Action Network branch, lost her 18-year-old son to neighborhood violence last October. His killer has not been found.

Her experience with the Charleston police has been very positive, she said.

"To me, it feels like they've taken personally my son's death," Jefferson said. "They are very supportive. ... I've never had any reason to have any distrust in police officers. Communication is the key to everything that goes on. We as citizens sometimes have to protect ourselves, just as police officers have to protect themselves also. The bottom line is communication."

The extra mile

Seth Stoughton, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer in Florida who worked in riot response and crowd control, said very little police training has to do with interpersonal relations, cultural practices and historical concerns.

"That kind of training generally is not systemic and formalized," Stoughton said. "And to the extent that it is formalized, it may not be effective."

For police officers working in a good department, it's a point of pride to treat everyone equally, he said.

"When you are just treating people equally, you are forgetting that there is a cultural context to the way people are interacting with you. Maybe we don't want to treat the black teenage male exactly the same way as a young white female."

The young black male has had "the talk," a nearly universal experience in which parents warn their sons about police interactions. This means an encounter with police will provoke fear and suspicion, so police must "go the extra mile," Stoughton said.

"That I think is missing a little bit. Equal treatment is really important, but you also have to be sensitive to the cultural history of the country."

Middleton has an 8-year-old son. "My heart hurts for that kid. Because that day will happen" - the day when he encounters a police officer. So Middleton, torn between conflicting obligations, will teach his son to show respect.

"But I want him to stand up for himself," he said. "I don't want him to bow down."