A state Senate review has found no legal faults with the Charleston Police Department’s policy on “stop-and-frisk” encounters, but it assuaged only a few of the concerns residents and experts raised last summer after 19-year-old Denzel Curnell died during a confrontation with an officer.
Judiciary Committee attorneys said the factors that city officers might consider when deciding whether to stop someone were derived from court rulings and the Constitution, according to a memo sent to Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, who requested the review.
One factor is bulky clothing. A policeman confronted Curnell in June and tried to talk with him because the young man was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, despite the heat, as he walked through a neighborhood where he used to live. Curnell would not respond to the officer, and he shot himself during an ensuing struggle, investigators said.
Critics who questioned the reason for the encounter said they still fear that the guidelines could be employed unfairly in black communities and that the leeway they give officers in discerning suspicious behavior casts a wide net over mostly poor, minority populations. Sweatshirts like Curnell’s, for example, are common among black youths, they said. Their complaints mirror others nationwide.
Police Chief Greg Mullen countered that Charleston’s policy differs greatly from the one that prompted lawsuits and a court ruling against New York City. Rather than a sustained stop-and-frisk program with quotas for officers to confront people, Mullen said his police force uses its version as only one way to investigate possible criminal activity during patrols.
“I don’t know if we will get people to ever fully understand that,” Mullen said. “One of the things we often hear is that the police shouldn’t approach anybody unless they think a crime has been committed.”
If that were the case, “there would be a lot more violence,” he said.
The case, combined with police-involved deaths that fractured communities elsewhere in the country, has prompted the department’s efforts to tighten bonds with residents, Mullen said. Officers this year will sit down with three or four residents at a time to talk about concerns rather than airing them only in front of a large crowd at town hall-style meetings.
The committee’s policy review did not look at the specifics of the encounter with Curnell. But his family members and their attorney, Andy Savage, will meet with Mullen this month to discuss ways they think the confrontation could have been avoided and how the department could have allayed community angst about it sooner.
Savage, though, disagreed with the review’s outcome, which has not prompted any changes to the policy.
The officer’s run-in with Curnell became confrontational from the start, the attorney said, when he pulled his cruiser up to the young man. It rapidly escalated, he said. Curnell refused to take a hand out of his pocket, which contained his stepfather’s revolver, and within moments, he was dead.
“This is why the policy is so delicate,” Savage said. “You can write those things down, and you can learn them in an academic setting. But when you’re on the street, there’s a judgment made. If this (officer’s) interaction had been different, we think it would have made a difference.”
Officers must have “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity to stop someone. To then frisk the person, they must be able to later explain why they thought the suspect was armed and dangerous. The Charleston policy lays out those requirements, the review noted.
As a former police officer for five years in Florida, Seth Stoughton said he understands why the department also offers the list of 11 factors that could guide officers deciding whether to stop someone. But the standards culled from court rulings and adopted in policies like Charleston’s are so low and easy to satisfy, he contended, that officers can pick and choose how to apply them in the field.
Stoughton, now a law professor at the University of South Carolina, pointed out the policy’s mention of “furtive” movements and how that can be coupled with a high-crime area to raise enough suspicion for a stop.
“Police need the authority to do this,” he said, “but we need a more robust legal standard to better balance the rights of civilians with government authority.”
Kimpson, the state lawmaker, explained the committee’s findings at a recent Charleston NAACP branch meeting. The legal precedents cited in the review, he said, hinged on facts specific to certain cases, so questions about the policy’s practical use have persisted in the community.
The review’s outcome “doesn’t make it right,” branch President Dot Scott said. “The law allows them to do something that’s unjust and unfair.”
In a resolution that the Judiciary Committee’s chairman has co-sponsored, Kimpson has proposed a panel to study racial profiling and determine whether police policies statewide do enough to guard residents’ rights.
“The courts make the rules,” he said, “and police officers follow the rules that give them broad discretion.”
To Mullen, the circumstances of Curnell’s death had not been a “catalyst” for widespread concerns in the communities his force serves. But they prompted residents to look at crises nationwide that pitted segments of the population against police, he said.
“Trust and relationships is not something that remains forever,” he said. “You have to continue to work at that. ... If we can understand each other and how what we do impacts each other, then I think we can improve the trust and build those relationships.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.