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County sheriff says Charleston police wouldn't make arrests during riots; police rebut

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A demonstrator was brought in to be arrested while kneeling in protest at Marion Square on Sunday, May 31, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said Sunday that law enforcement chose not to make arrests as protests turned to riots in downtown Charleston on Saturday night.

Charleston’s police chief quickly rebutted those charges late Sunday night.

After largely peaceful demonstrations over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, things turned violent Saturday night. Protesters destroyed dozens of businesses, vandalized and looted others.

Officers with the Charleston County Sheriff's Department largely did not detain aggravated protesters on Saturday, following the direction of city officials, Cannon said, including one who busted open a fire extinguisher near Market Street.

“The city’s position was that they were not going to arrest, and we followed that lead,” Cannon said, emphasizing that the sheriffs were downtown to assist the Charleston Police Department.

Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds denied the allegation. About 10 people were arrested in connection with Saturday’s protests, Reynolds said, and most were charged with vandalism or burglary.

Reached Sunday after Cannon's comments, Reynolds said they were completely inaccurate.

"There could be nothing further from the truth," he said.

Reynolds said the comments were unhelpful considering the tense situation.

"He wasn't down there, he wasn't in the field," Reynolds said of Cannon.

Reynolds noted Cannon isn't in charge in the city and that "I'm in charge."

Charleston police said by 8 p.m. Sunday they'd arrested 35 people in connection with the day's protests that ebbed around the time the city and county-wide curfew took effect.

Most were charged with "disobeying lawful order" or breaking the 6 p.m. curfew.

"We did make arrests last (Saturday) night, but we were allowing them to protest peacefully, but some of the protesters took it too far," said Inspector Karen Nix, a spokeswoman for the Charleston Police Department. "Knowing what happened last night, a need for a greater police presence was necessary and no permits were approved for today."

Cannon stood by his comments late Sunday night, saying that officers "didn’t have the kind of problems" they faced the night prior. 

"I think after yesterday we all needed to take a little different approach. And the approach was to not let people get away with stuff. … There were a lot of folks that got away with a lot of things yesterday and last night," Cannon said. 

Protesters were repeatedly told to disperse on Sunday after police informed them that they were participating in an unlawful gathering. Many refused, leading to police to tackle and arrest some who didn’t comply.

By 6:30 p.m. most of the large groups from the afternoon's protest were "fairly dispersed," Cannon said, and the streets downtown were mostly quiet. 

Contact Jenna Schiferl at 843-937-5764. Follow her on Twitter at @jennaschif.

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