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Charleston police say they've changed since May 2020 rioting; report details how

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Police King Street.JPG (copy) (copy)

Police officers march down King Street on May 30, 2020, in Charleston. Authorities have released an analysis of their response to the rioting that night laced with both praise and criticism. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Roughly nine months after rioting and looting engulfed downtown Charleston, officials say they've enacted a number of changes aimed at preventing such violence from overwhelming the city again.

Officials released an 84-page final report on Feb. 23 that outlines Charleston Police Department's response to the events of May 30 and 31. The document treads much of the same ground as a preliminary report, issued last fall, but also includes updated arrest information, a new damage assessment, information on what has happened since May 2020, community feedback, final thoughts from Police Chief Luther Reynolds, a property damage map, and a fire incidents map.

The previous report outlined insufficient planning, communications breakdowns, lack of intelligence and other factors that police said nearly overwhelmed officers on May 30.  

"Many productive changes have been made or are under way to prevent these acts from occurring again," according to the most recent report. "The Charleston Police Department is much more effective today because of this, and will continue to reflect on its practices and seek out areas for improvement."

Changes

Charleston police have shored up their command structure, developing an Incident Command System and other measures authorities believe will ensure smoother communications and decision making, according to the report. 

The department is also utilizing staging areas, assigning personnel dedicated to ensuring clear, two-way communication between the Public Safety Operations Center and the field and is working to improve communications with businesses and residents in the event that civil unrest is expected in the city, according to the report. 

Officers are continuing to train, including with other area agencies, on how to respond to civil unrest, and department leaders are continuing to improve upon and adjust the tiered response plan that was in place at the time of the riot, according to the report. 

Arrests

Police made five "on-view arrests" the night of the riot, but the total number of riot-related arrests stands at 35, according to the report. Authorities have filed 104 charges, including five federal indictments. 

On May 31, police arrested 47 people and issued 52 charges, the report said. 

Of the 47 defendants connected to the events of May 31 — a second protest at Marion Square that led to several controversial arrests of peaceful protesters — prosecutors dismissed charges against 30, the report said. 

Those cases were dismissed because they didn't involve violent conduct, defendants with prior criminal reports, young defendants and other mitigating factors, the report said.

"The remaining 17 cases involve factors such as violent conduct, interference with arrest or resisting arrest, gun charges and drug charges," the report said.

Damage

On the day after the riot, authorities conducted 136 "visual surveys of building damage," the report said. 

Upper King Street suffered the most losses, with 82 buildings damaged, the report said. Lower King had 20 buildings damaged, the Charleston City Market area had 10, Queen Street area had nine, Meeting Street area eight and west of King had seven. 

Restaurants, bars and retail shops comprised most of the businesses damaged, and 87 percent of the damage was categorized as broken windows or doors, the report said. 

The costliest damage tied to the riot was fire-related, the report said. Total damage from the 19 fires reported in the city is estimated to be $2.28 million, the report said.

"The greatest amount of property damage sustained to buildings in the city was as a result of building fires at Family Dollar, Sherwin Williams and West Elm," the report said. "The response and suppression efforts by (firefighters) saved or protected an estimated ($24.78 million) of property and an estimated ($3.09 million) of contents."

At a Feb. 23 meeting of the city's Public Safety Committee, Councilman Peter Shahid said tallying the financial losses is helpful, but it doesn't express the full scope of what city residents went through on May 30.

"You can't measure the trauma that our citizens experienced," Shahid said. "You can't put a dollar figure on it. It was a scary night."

Community feedback

On Oct. 8, police sent their preliminary report to the city's Public Safety Committee for discussion and started collecting public comments. 

Authorities asked whether anyone knew someone who was personally impacted by the protests and riots or if they had a personal story to share about the experience. 

The public comment period was extended through Dec. 31. 

Police received 28 responses, from one clergy member, two people affiliated with a college, seven business owners and 18 other people, the report said. In addition, 12 people commented at the Oct. 28 Public Safety Committee meeting. 

Responses included in the report were listed without naming the individuals who made the comments. 

A restaurant patron described being out to dinner with his wife and not taking reports of rioting seriously until a bottle flew through a window and landed at his wife's feet. The man and his wife eventually were able to go out the restaurant's back door and get a ride out of the area. He reported seeing fires burning in the middle of the street, rioters roaming and vulgar remarks hurled their way. 

"Needless to say, it was an experience I won't forget and I wondered the entire night, 'Where are the police?'" the report said. 

A person who protested on May 30 and 31 described being chased by authorities in tanks through residential neighborhoods even though they were not engaging in violence or rioting. 

"We were scared of the people who had just yesterday been defending our right to protest were now herding us like animals," the report said. "A simple admittance of mistake would be good but really a much deeper gesture is necessary to restore trust the community once had in its officers."

Community feedback reinforces the importance of proper planning and intelligence-gathering, devoting additional resources for public safety and increasing training for officers at all levels responding to civil unrest, the report said. 

"The importance of external communication with the community is reinforced, as well, to include education and notification prior to events, when possible, and communication during an event," the report said. "Additionally, the use of curfews as a tool is now discussed as a part of the planning process prior to events."

At the city's Feb. 23 Public Safety Committee meeting, Mayor John Tecklenburg thanked protesters who had demonstrated peacefully that weekend. The city has continued to watch over many permitted protests since then, he said, trying to make sure they don't turn violent.

"We have to recognize and thanks citizens for their perseverance and resilience, but acknowledge that some of our businesses and our citizens were not just vandalized from a property point of view but traumatized," Tecklenburg said.

He called the May 30 riot a "black eye" for the city. "It was a sad weekend, y'all."

Chief Reynolds

The chief said lessons learned and areas identified for improvement "were immediately addressed" during the summer of 2020 "to provide for many effective First Amendment demonstrations." 

The Police Department continues to work to achieve a balance between maintaining order and allowing public demonstrations within the proper constitutional framework, according to the report. 

"There were several large-scale events following the events of May 30 and 31, such as the Million Women’s March, the Presidential Election, and the Presidential Inauguration, where (Charleston Police Department) demonstrated an improved planning process, and better communicated those plans with employees, law enforcement partners, businesses, and the communities at large," according to the report. 

Frank Knaack, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the report doesn't do enough to address how police handled peaceful protesters who were trying to draw attention to systemic issues of police brutality.

"The Charleston Police Department’s 'Final Report' is deeply disappointing," Knaack said. "It has been nearly nine months since the Charleston Police Department and other law enforcement agencies brutalized people protesting police brutality on May 31. At a minimum, this report should have acknowledged this abuse of power.

"Instead, CPD has continued to deflect responsibility. CPD has shown our community that it is unable to hold itself accountable. This so-called report is yet another reminder that to achieve safe and just communities we must invest in people, not police and prisons."

According to the report, police now hold "pre-incident briefings" with other area agencies to discuss plans and expectations for upcoming events.

"Throughout this time of protests, civil unrest, and focus on violent crime and community engagement, CPD continues working on improving communication," the report said. "This involves collaborating with the community regarding current policies and how to get involved with police reform and the ongoing social justice movement."

Reynolds also pointed to the community policing priorities set in the department's 2019 Racial Bias Audit and said instituting substantial change is a top priority. 

"We are allocating a significant amount of time and resources towards being a learning organization while working diligently, actively and consistently to address topical areas and challenges brought to light in these movements," the report said. "In addition, we are focusing on solutions for the recommendations from the Racial Bias Audit."

Fleming Smith contributed to this report.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-323-9175. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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