Senate attorneys to review 'stop-and-frisk'

ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF A memorial is tacked to a utility pole at the Bridgeview Village apartments in downtown Charleston after Denzel Curnell, 19, was fatally shot during an encounter with a police officer.

Attorneys for the S.C. Senate will examine the Charleston Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" policies before politicians decide how to handle concerns raised after 19-year-old Denzel Curnell's death.

The move this week by the Judiciary Committee serves as the first step in a local legislator's quest to determine whether the procedures contained in a Charleston field guide agree with state and federal laws. Police Department officials added Friday that they were cooperating with the probe in the General Assembly.

Republican Sen. Larry Martin of Pickens, the committee's chairman, said the review could prompt further study of possible legislation. But even if the lawyers find inconsistencies between the policies and constitutional provisions, change might be hard to come by, Martin said.

Curnell was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, despite the heat on June 20, a sight that struck Officer Jamal Medlin as odd. Medlin confronted Curnell, who authorities said shot himself during a struggle outside the Bridgeview Village apartments.

The police policy allows officers to consider observations, such as someone's clothing, in developing suspicion of criminal behavior. But critics have said the practice could amount to unintended racial profiling.

"We all have our suspicions and our opinions," Martin said Friday. "But I want an independent opinion regarding the nature of this policy so we can go from there."

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, asked for the inquiry last week. Whether the Judiciary Committee forms a subcommittee to further examine stop-and-frisk procedures and racial profiling, which was part of Kimpson's request, depends on the attorneys' findings, Martin said.

The police said last week that it would be premature to say what officials would do if the senators faulted their policies, which are reviewed periodically. Agency spokesman Charles Francis said Friday that police officials had since spoken with Kimpson and Martin.

"We will provide any assistance that is necessary or requested during the review," Francis said, "and are certain that the results will be provided to the department after the review is completed."

The Judiciary Committee frequently takes up racial profiling when lawmakers draft bills that run the risk of targeting certain groups of people, Martin has said.

In Charleston, the main questions revolve around Section 9 of a search-and-seizure field guide that police officers consult during patrols. Critics have said that the provisions run the risk of violating Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Under rules developed by court opinions during the past 40 years, officers must have "reasonable suspicion" that someone they see is armed, dangerous and possibly involved in criminal activity.

The city's field guide lists 11 factors, such as an officer's knowledge of a suspect's past crimes and whether they're in a high-crime neighborhood.

Part of Medlin's job was to make sure people in Bridgeview Village, a community historically beset by drug problems and violent crime, belonged there. Curnell's sister also was visiting the neighborhood that night.

But Curnell's hoodie and his subsequent refusal to take his hand out of his pocket prompted Medlin to grab him and attempt an arrest. A revolver came out of that pocket during a struggle, and Curnell, who had suffered homesickness during Army basic training last year, died of a bullet wound to the head as Medlin kneeled over him.

Francis, the police spokesman, would not discuss how much of a role the stop-and-frisk procedures played in the encounter. The department had provided the policy as part of its response to The Post and Courier's request for documentation of the case under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

"During any encounter, police officers use policies, field guides and their training and experience to guide their actions," Francis said Friday. "This specific policy is only one element of what officers utilize on a daily basis as they perform their duties."

Drawing on the State Law Enforcement Division's investigation, prosecutors found no criminal wrongdoing by Medlin. But they did not review the constitutional implications of his stop of Curnell, whose loved ones have challenged the findings.

Charleston attorney Andy Savage, who represents Curnell's family, said Friday that his own probe into the death has been slow-going.

Questions remain, Savage said, about whether Medlin's clothing and hands were preserved for signs of gunshot residue, the tiny particles that a fired gun expels. Investigators found them on Curnell, not on Medlin. Other injuries seen on Curnell, which could indicate the nature of his struggle with the officer who outweighed him, also deserve a closer look, Savage said.

The attorney also has posed questions about a police policy that "seems inconsistent with the law," he said.

"I'm not saying they did anything wrong," Savage said, "but the whole thing looks suspicious."

In the past, the Senate's Criminal Justice Task Force has worked with police leaders, such as Charleston Chief Greg Mullen, to devise crime-fighting legislation, said its leader, Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.

Though he knew little about Curnell's case, Malloy said he had learned of people's concerns about Charleston's policy and planned to "air some of this stuff out." Any stop-and-frisk policy, he explained, should be subjected to a thorough review.

"We have to stop and have a full and fair discussion about this," Malloy said. "We have to make certain that other citizens are not walking in fear in this state."

Kimpson, the Charleston lawmaker who requested the Judiciary Committee's review, also on Friday urged lawmakers to plan for a "real conversation" about stop-and-frisk practices and racial profiling regardless of the panel's findings.

"We applaud the hard work that police officers do," Malloy said. "But people have constitutional rights. All of us, including police officers, have to respect that fact."

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