A day after the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, about 1,000 people gathered uptown to protest, and Charlotte officials worried that events might turn violent for a second night.
But when some demonstrators marched to the EpiCentre and began smashing windows and looting businesses “there was no significant police presence in the area,” according to an affidavit from a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department major.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts has said that the city struck the right balance in deploying law enforcement while respecting citizens’ rights during September’s killing protest.
But court documents filed last week raise questions about how CMPD deployed officers in the hours after the Scott shooting and the following day when one protester was killed and uptown descended into chaos.
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On Sept. 21, a day after the police shooting, protesters caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage at the EpiCentre, throwing chairs from a nightclub, looting a pharmacy and shattering windows before a Civil Emergency Unit could arrive.
A few blocks away, as many as 30 people broke into a restaurant adjoining the NASCAR Hall of Fame, shattering windows and doors and taking more than 20 bottles of liquor, according to newly released police reports.
Too much remains unknown to say whether CMPD responded appropriately to the protests, law enforcement experts said. But they said it appears commanders struggled with difficult decisions about when to use a show of force and when to defuse confrontations with a softer approach.
In a written statement, a CMPD spokesman said Chief Kerr Putney has assembled a group of department leaders to assess the response during and after the protests.
“We are documenting, discussing and reviewing the department’s strategy and response to determine whether any necessary changes would be appropriate in the future,” spokesman Rob Tufano said.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said CMPD and many other departments have little or no experience dealing with massive protests and there is widespread disagreement about the the best way to handle demonstrations.
“The chief doesn’t want to say, ‘We’re just not prepared for this,’ because nobody wants to hear that,” O’Donnell said. “You don’t get points for honesty. This is why a lot of cops don’t want to be a police chief. It’s a headache like never before.”
Details about the police tactics are contained in a filing from city attorneys in response to a complaint from eight Charlotte residents who allege that police used tear gas, riot techniques and other forms of excessive force against peaceful protesters. They asked a judge to issue a temporary restraining order banning police from using such tactics against nonviolent demonstrators.
City attorneys deny the allegations. In the court filing, police acknowledge using an array of munitions – from tear gas to smoke canisters to sting grenades and nonlethal bullets. However, city officials say police used the chemical weapons and other force either to defend themselves or after giving protesters warnings.
The city’s account of events portray a police force, at times, outnumbered and overwhelmed by vandalism and assaults on officers.
Scott, 43, died after he was shot Sept. 20 by Officer Brentley Vinson outside the University City apartment complex where he lived.
In the hours after the shooting, the city says, angry crowds surrounded officers and began pelting them with bottles and rocks from a nearby rail bed.
At that point, the documents say, a Civil Emergency Unit was outnumbered 4 to 1, with 200 protesters to 50 officers.
Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he questions why CMPD did not deploy officers to secure the rail bed. The tracks supplied protesters with rocks that injured multiple officers, Hagler said.
“I couldn’t understand that,” Hagler said. “I have never gotten an answer to that.”
Overall, however, Hagler said officers agreed with the decisions made by Putney and other commanders during the protests. Members of his police group sent Putney a letter indicating their support for his leadership, Hagler said.
Who’s to blame?
Some protesters insist that CMPD officers were too aggressive.
Kass Ottley, an activist with Charlotte Uprising, said that officers escalated tensions that were already running high after the Scott shooting.
Tear gas left some peaceful protesters vomiting and with burning eyes, Ottley said.
“CMPD’s decision to confine the crowds escalated the situation on that Tuesday and Wednesday,” Ottley said. “(Officers) panicked. They didn’t know what to do.”
The Rev. Rodney Sadler, a leader of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, said the presence of officers in riot gear intensified feelings of anger toward law enforcement and help lead to violence.
“When people saw the officers in riot gear, it sparked the fire,” Sadler said.
Demonstrations were peaceful later in the week where there was a presence of officers riding bikes in standard uniform, Sadler said, because “they were not as militarized.”
In some instances, city attorneys suggest, police commanders limited their response to the growing violence in an attempt to defuse tensions.
On Sept. 21, a day after the Scott shooting, riot-clad officers responded to vandalism and looting at the EpiCentre but pulled back to another location to avoid the possibility of escalating tensions.
Protesters followed the officers and a few minutes later a civilian was fatally shot. Rayquan Borum, who police say was in the crowd that night and was caught on surveillance looting a nearby bar, has since been arrested and charged with the murder of 21-year-old Justin Carr.
Robert Taylor, a former police officer and criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said Charlotte has a police chief who has held the top post less than two years and some relatively new commanders, meaning they were learning as the protests progressed.
Taylor said CMPD was justified in using de-escalation tactics as much as possible because a show of force can have unintended consequences.
“These are all judgment calls,” Taylor said. “You have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
In recent years, law enforcement has been criticized for using military-style tactics during protests, said O’Donnell, the former police officer in New York. But five Dallas police officers were killed in July while the department used a softer approach, he said.
“It shows you how hard it is to reach an equilibrium,” O’Donnell said. “The playbook says that if what you do succeeds, you’re brilliant. But nobody is sure what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704-219-2667, @FrederickClasen