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Editorial: Charleston must learn from issues raised in riot report

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The Charleston Police Department made several changes in the aftermath of the rioting the night of May 30. Above, police in riot gear arrive in Charleston's Marion Square to shut down the park in June. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It's not easy to hold up a mirror and gaze for a long time at one of the darkest chapters of Charleston's recent history — the destructive rioting that occurred downtown on May 30-31 when peaceful protests turned violent as night fell — but it's a welcome and necessary step toward healing the city. And to make sure the city has done what it reasonably can to prevent a repeat of that violence while also ensuring everyone's constitutional right to assemble and speak freely.

So the Charleston Police Department and other city leaders should be commended for the release Thursday of a detailed report about what specifically happened that night, what lessons the city learned and the changes made since. As City Councilman Kevin Shealy said shortly after its release: "We obviously have a little bit of damage control to do now, and we’ve got to work hard to build trust. … It's obviously been a painful experience for all of us."

Some of that "damage control" must include learning from the mistakes and oversights that were magnified as the chaotic night wore on. The city must use the report and citizen input as a guide to rebuilding trust that was lost that night.

The 64-page report details how the city had little clue that a protest planned in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police would become so large. The city was not issuing permits, nor did it have direct contact with the gathering's leaders. The report also details problems with insufficient planning, internal and external communications lapses, difficulties tracking personnel, all of which hampered police response. Essentially, the city was caught flat-footed. 

"Many productive changes have been made or are under way," the report concludes. "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. Of paramount importance to our organization is building relationships and public trust, and treating individuals with the dignity and respect they deserve, and to which they are entitled."

It will be more clear in the coming weeks what else the city should do; City Council members are only beginning to digest the report, and some already have suggested it could be improved with more stories about business owners and customers who found themselves in the rioters' path; more detail about the property damage done to buildings; and more about the police's more aggressive presence with protesters the following day.

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City Council members and the report itself gave credit to the restraint showed by the hundreds of police officers on the streets that night; despite officers dealing with the city's worst rioting in decades, no one was killed or seriously injured. "Had even one officer lost focus, the outcome could have been catastrophic for individuals involved and the city of Charleston," the report says.

The city is expected to hear public comments at its next meeting. Citizen input will be crucial as those comments will make an important statement on the adequacy of the after-action report.

The early reaction indicates the report is nestled in the middle ground between those who have faulted the police for not maintaining control that night and those who fault the city for not addressing the underlying reasons behind the riot. It's a debate that has emerged in communities across the nation in the wake of Mr. Floyd's tragic death.

One important finding concerns the importance of requiring parade permits for demonstrations. The May 30 demonstration at Marion Square lacked such a permit because the city wasn't giving out any due to COVID-19. As a result, police had few contacts among protesters as the situation deteriorated. Since the city resumed issuing permits on July 9, police have been able to establish a dialogue with event organizers, which has helped ensure public safety because organizers know what behavior would be considered crossing the line.

"What we discovered was when you give an inch, you’ve got to be careful a mile is not taken," Mayor John Tecklenburg said. "If we don't take these measures and allow folks to step over a lawful order, we end up with a situation on our hands."

The after-action report is helpful but by no means the final word. As Charleston moves ahead, an ongoing dialogue is needed, not just over riot control but also over balancing our civil liberties with legitimate public safety concerns. It's a discussion that shouldn't take place only within city government but among the community as a whole.

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