Charleston riot: Miscommunication, lack of intel clouded police response, report says | News

For the first time since violent protests swept across the Charleston peninsula on the night of May 30, authorities have released an analysis of their response laced with both praise and criticism.

A 64-page document produced by the Charleston Police Department and released Thursday outlines insufficient planning, communications breakdowns, lack of intelligence and other factors that police say nearly overwhelmed officers that night.

It also noted officers were wary of COVID-19 as they tried to put down the riots, and no one was killed or seriously injured, though dozens of businesses were ransacked and looted.

“While the response of CPD resulted in no one being killed or seriously injured, and numerous individuals being charged with crimes, several businesses sustained significant property damage and those citizens caught in the riot zone experienced traumatic events,” the report notes. “With regard to (Charleston police), and as is evidenced in this report, many productive changes have been made or are underway to prevent these acts from occurring again.”

In the days after the riot, merchants and restaurateurs on King Street pieced together as much of their businesses as they could. City leadership’s response over that weekend drew anger and frustration from the business owners. Emergency 911 calls laid an audio portrait of scared bartenders and servers cowering as looters broke into shops, stole merchandise and destroyed some businesses.

But police officers’ handling of events since then hasn’t gone unnoticed by some merchants. 

For Charleston Hospitality Group’s John Diehl, the management group of places like Toast, Queology Barbecue and John King, there’s been “zero problems” and a “heavy police presence and a very friendly police presence,” he said. 

“How fast they implemented this plan or whatever they’re doing seems to be working,” Diehl said.

Over the course of the weekend, 32 people were arrested, 336 officers from a slew of departments were deployed on Saturday and another 381 on Sunday. Over 150 businesses were damaged, looted or, in some cases, burned.

Suzanne Hardie, a volunteer with the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, said the report has a narrow focus on a small number of hours during which violence broke out. She said it does little to examine the underlying reasons behind the riot or its aftermath.

“I feel like the Police Department’s focus has shifted into purely looking at the violence,” Hardie said. “There are a number of things missing. There’s no 360-degree look at the reasons why and the fallout of the events. It’s all just kind of shoved away somewhere.”

Public trust in law enforcement is suffering as a result of heavy-handed measures taken in the four months since late May, she said.

“Cleary, the people that are committing the violence, absolutely strong measures should be employed, but I think police lost the distinction between those who were being violent and those who were protesting. They lumped them all in together.”

A chaotic weekend

The report paints the weekend’s events as chaotic and pushes back on polarized criticism that officers either escalated the violence or stood by as rioters wreaked havoc up and down King Street.

From May 28 to May 29, Charleston police found “no local credible, verifiable threats” but noted two scheduled events: a “Justice for George Floyd rally” from 2-5 p.m. May 30 at Marion Square and another gathering that encouraged people to bring flowers.

Police said they created an incident action plan for May 30, but members of the department’s civil disturbance unit were prepared to support other areas of the state.

“In Charleston, there was no confirmed information of potential violence and CPD was prepared to handle the anticipated protest,” the report reads. “Additionally, there was no intelligence that a very large crowd would be present for the protests.”

The report says the city has a history of events and peaceful protests and none had turned to violent riots. Because of that “there was no anticipation that the day would end any differently.”

Charleston police contacted Mount Pleasant police, and they were placed on standby. The report says other “partnering jurisdictions” were notified, but it doesn’t note which ones. 

Police check in on a business vandalized on Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Charleston. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Andrew J. Whitaker

On May 30, the city opened its Public Safety Operations Center, a cohort of city department leaders that come together during any anticipated or urgent event. It opens when floodwater is expected to overcome roadways or police embark on a SWAT operation. They took stock of their equipment and discussed the possibility of sending officers elsewhere as backup for departments anticipating trouble. 

Straying from the plan, some command staff voluntarily came in to assist.

Demonstrations began peacefully, with nearly 2,000 protesters marching throughout the downtown and up Interstate 26. On the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, protesters brought traffic to a halt. Mount Pleasant police, Charleston police and Charleston County sheriff’s deputies responded, but it’s unclear what the deputies did. 

Response calls during the daytime protests included EMS assisting someone who claimed they were hit by a car, someone having a “medical event,” vandalism reported at White Point Garden and a grass fire. Fireworks went off at one point in the early evening near King and Calhoun streets, too, and a Mount Pleasant police car’s glass was broken.  

Charleston police contacted the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority, advising officials to stop bus service downtown.  

Rioting broke out after the sun went down. 

The report says protesters tried to attack officers from behind, set off fireworks and fire extinguishers and shot pellets at police. Police command told officers to disperse the crowds and make arrests, and authorized them to use tear gas and less lethal rounds.

Police planned to push the crowd north up East Bay and off of the peninsula, in order to keep them from King Street. Dispatch sent a reverse 911 call to everyone within a quarter-mile of King and Calhoun, warning them to stay indoors. 

By 9 p.m., police had stationed themselves on Calhoun Street, ready to press north on King Street. Officers reported that rioters were breaking into small groups, chasing police and throwing bottles. Police retreated to Calhoun Street, and began deploying tear gas and less lethal rounds.

Unprecedented events

Residents and business owners north of Calhoun Street called 911 in a frenzy, demanding to know why officers weren’t headed north to help them. The department fielded criticism, both from business owners who’d expected them to prevent the damage and make immediate arrests and from community members blaming police for the escalation after a peaceful day.

From 2 p.m. May 30 to 3:01 a.m. May 31, authorities received 238 calls for service to locations on the Charleston peninsula, the report said. Call volume increased significantly and was “almost exclusively pertaining to the protests and riots.”

Charleston Police Capt. Jason Bruder told City Council members Thursday afternoon that the calls on May 30 were nearly twice the number of response calls the county had in the previous two weekends — with about 1,600 calls coming in.

Comparing the last weekend of May in 2018 and 2019, calls from the peninsula increased by more than three times, Bruder said.

Of the 238 calls on the peninsula during the riot, 173 came between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., the report said. 

“Due to the significant increase in calls, it became necessary to triage, or prioritize the order in which the limited police resources would be utilized,” the report said.

Officers respond to calls involving life-threatening situations first, calls for felonies that aren’t threatening life rank second and other calls, coded as general response, are ranked third, the report said. This call prioritization system is part of all police responses “to ensure that the sanctity of life is paramount,” and patrol supervisors triage calls on a daily basis to make sure officers are available to respond as needed.

“It is important to remember that the concentrated and extraordinarily high call volume during the riot strained police and dispatch resources,” the report said.”Triaging calls allowed for life-safety calls to be addressed as quickly as possible and as a result, there was no loss of life or life threatening injuries during this entire incident.”

The report reiterated that officers were given “clear directives to make arrests throughout the day and night” of May 30, and that at no point were they told not to make arrests.

“Officers do not need permission to make arrests and should do so only when appropriate and when safe,” the report said. “Additionally, there was no ‘stand-down’ order given on the night of the riots.”

Authorities have to take many factors into account when making arrests during active civil disturbances, including strategy, planning, safety of the public and officers, location and availability of resources, the report said. All that has to be accounted for while prioritizing overall public safety.

The report said that while five arrests were made on the night of May 30 “in what was a very chaotic riot,” 32 arrests have been made to date and 104 charges filed. In addition, there’ve been 46 arrests and 52 charges connected to the events of May 31.

There were no deaths resulting from the riot and no serious injuries, the report said. In all, seven city employees were injured, three police officers and four firefighters. Three officers from other law enforcement agencies also were injured.

“A total of 20 (Charleston Police Department) vehicles were damaged in the riots and protests — 12 vehicles sustained major damage and eight others sustained minor damage for a total cost of repair of $47,384.25,” the report said. “Additionally, one flashlight was damaged and one body worn camera was lost. The replacement cost for these items is $509.82.”

City police recorded total losses of $47,894.07, the report said.

Authorities responded to 22 fire incidents during the riot, including 13 building fires, the report said.

City Councilman Peter Shahid, who led discussion on the report’s finding at an afternoon public safety meeting on Thursday, wanted clarity on how many of the fires were intentionally set. 

“Although not specified here, it should be noted that … partnering agencies sustained significant damages in costs in the areas of personnel, staffing, and equipment,” the report said.

The report noted that “during this event, communication with the protesters and rioters was extremely difficult due to the lack of any leadership (formal or informal) in the crowd.” 

“On the evening of May 30th, police attempts to determine the leaders of the crowd and communicate with the crowd were met with verbal assaults and threats,” the report said. “The objective of the group appeared to be creating conflict with police.”

In protests since, commanders have been able to communicate with event organizers and keep gatherings peaceful, the report said.

Change under way

Over the summer, the department began making changes to improve on its May 30 response.

The report detailed a new, streamlined communication processes through a single field commander, text updates for supervisors and police staff, and regular information emails for downtown residents and business owners. A public information team now handles the department’s public-facing posts, work that previously was handled by a single person.

The department also has purchased more protective equipment for officers, made new forms to quickly process arrests in large group events and implemented a software program to organize staff and resources.

The report’s analysis was broken into five categories: command and control, internal communications, external communications, tracking resources and personnel and response to civil disturbances.

On command and control, the report indicates the department already had an incident action plan in place. But police hadn’t expected the crowd’s size or outbreaks of violence, and scrambled to organized more resources when violence broke out.

Some command staff who had not been scheduled showed up on their own, resulting in confusion and the same tasks completed by two different people. As officers arrived, the department tracked them on a whiteboard.

On internal communications, the report indicates that the department used two different radio channels, one for the riot specifically and one for regular calls for service. Calls related to the riot came in on both channels. Merging the channels, designating a person to handle two-way communication and briefing officers at a primary staging location before sending them to work would have improved the process, the report notes.

On external communications, the report says Charleston police used a reverse 911 service to alert residents of the riots and to shelter in place and posted such warnings on social media. Emergency management would’ve allowed for better communication with community leaders, the report states.

On response to civil disturbances, the report praises the department for training regularly with neighboring agencies. They were on the same page about protocols, the report noted, but overwhelmed by a lack of information and organization from the protest participants. The report said officers complied with protocols in deploying tear gas, and inventoried their supplies before and after the riot, though they lacked specific information about each deployment.

City leaders spoke favorably of the report’s findings Thursday, including Police Chief Luther Reynolds and Mayor John Tecklenburg. 

Tecklenburg said that the report shows the city was “attacked and overwhelmed.”

Councilman Mike Seekings requested the report include testimonials from people caught in the crosshairs of the riot.

“Folks were literally trapped in certain businesses, establishments,” Councilman Shahid said. “We saw some of these images, people walking into establishments, hiding in closets — that’s an integral part to all of this.”

Councilwoman Carol Jackson suggested interviewing people who were arrested on May 31 who had their charges later dropped.

Shahid also requested an assessment of property damage.

Councilman Kevin Shealy said it was good to see improvements already becoming policy at the Police Department.

“The report shows where the failures were and a plan for better communication, organization and management going forward from here,” Shealy said.

Frank Knaack, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s South Carolina chapter, hadn’t fully reviewed the report as of late Thursday afternoon but offered some initial thoughts on its conclusions.

The report strengthens the organization’s concerns with the police response to what were largely peaceful protests, said Knaack, who attended the daytime protests.

“What I witnessed that day was people protesting against police brutality, and they were met with pure police brutality,” he said. “Police quickly moved to using pepper bullets and tear gas against people peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights in a public space.”

The ACLU of South Carolina sent two letters, dated June 2 and July 28, to Charleston area law enforcement agencies seeking explanations for the use of force and arrests of nonviolent protesters. Knaack called the police responses insufficient.

The ACLU is continuing to work with a coalition of community organizations to call for changes in Charleston’s approach to public safety, he said. They hope to see $5 million reallocated from the police budget toward programs research has found will increase public safety, such as living wage and housing.

Knaack also said although the city completed its racial bias audit in 2019, Black and Brown residents still face discrimination, bias and are disproportionately impacted by authorities.

While Hardie, with the Justice Ministry, said she appreciates Reynolds and other leaders being willing to engage with the public and listen to concerns, she added she’s disheartened by how she’s seen Charleston police act in the months since May 30.

“The response from police has been to put a lot more officers, especially in Black neighborhoods,” Hardie said. “There’s nothing that deteriorates trust that we were building up from the audit more than that.”

Weeks after the civil unrest, Charleston police announced a program that saw enhanced patrols citywide. Sheriff’s deputies and state agents were deployed to supplement local officers’ ranks in downtown.

The program, which Reynolds and other police leaders said was developed in response to spiking violent crime numbers and requests for more police by the community, was met with outcry from the Justice Ministry and other groups who said more police would only lead to overpolicing of Black and Brown residents and further erosion of trust in communities that don’t trust officers.

Following the racial bias audit in 2019, Hardie’s organization and others felt that significant trust had been established between police and the Black community. There was a road forward to a better future in the form of the audit report’s recommendations.

Now, as peaceful protesters are arrested and charged with a variety of high-level crimes in state and federal courts, she fears all the work in 2019 was for naught.

“It feels like a lot of that is lost,” Hardie said.

The public will have an opportunity to weigh in before the preliminary report is finalized.

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