How Charlotte investigators tracked 31 looters and vandals
In his two decades in law enforcement, Det. Josh Gibson has investigated everything from a stolen can of beer to a double homicide.
But nothing has been like the cases he’s handled in the last month – he’s been hunting for looters from the Charlotte riots in September, and he’s awash in evidence.
It comes from TV, street cameras, Facebook. It pours in from cell phones, news sites and security cameras. If there’s any question that we’ve been become a surveillance society, Gibson can settle it.
“I’ve been in this line of work for 20 years and I’ve never seen a situation with this much video.”
A normal day for Gibson, who specializes in burglaries in the uptown district, is one or two cases, two or three suspects.
After the riots that erupted following the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20, he was investigating break-ins where dozens of people looted stores in half a minute.
Already, 31 people have been charged with riot-related crimes, most of them identified through video and computerized crowd-sourcing. And tips are still coming i
Among the oddest of cases was that of a man who looted a store and was captured on surveillance video so sharp that Gibson could tell the color of his shoelaces.
Then, the man gave a street interview to a television reporter. He gave his name, which was flashed on the screen.
Another woman was filmed from multiple angles near the EpiCenter, where Justin Carr was shot to death in street chaos on Sept. 21. She dipped her hands in his blood, then smeared it on the faces of officers trying to restore order, their bikes and shields.
A few days later, she showed up on video again – during the live feed from the Charlotte City Council meeting, where she had signed up to talk.
Both were charged.
More than a few suspects wore masks or pulled shirts up over their faces while they looted stores to hide their identity.
But then when they went back on the street, they exposed their faces again to blend in – and were captured by street cameras.
“Even when they thought their faces were covered up,” Gibson said, “we were able to make identifications.”
In the hours after the riots, Gibson and his colleagues began collecting surveillance video from businesses throughout uptown, those hit by looters and those nearby.
Then came video from cameras placed on poles and traffic lights in uptown, some of them added from security money given the city for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
They also began scouring news footage from local stations and national networks. And then they went through social media to see videos and pictures people posted to their personal sites.
When they got sharp pictures of someone involved in a criminal act, they e-mailed it to the 2,000 employees of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.
Officers often replied that they knew certain suspects from earlier encounters. Then Gibson and others turned to jail booking mugs and driver license photos to make positive identifications.
They also put sharp pictures on Twitter and asked the community for tips.
Det. G.T. Willis, who works alongside Gibson investigating robberies and assaults in uptown, said everyone worked 12-hour days for two weeks, no days off. They waded through hours and hours of video and photos, confirmed identifications, then got warrants and served them.
Gibson said the arrests increased the morale of street officers who often had to stand by wearing riot gear in line as looters struck in front of them. Not being able to step in and stop a crime in progress is contrary to every instinct in law enforcement, he said.
One advantage of having so much photographic evidence, Gibson and Willis said, was that it made it easier to get people to admit they were involved in crimes.
“They knew they were there, you knew they were there,” Gibson said. “I had people confessing to me on the phone.”
More than 100 street cameras are spread throughout the city, Gibson said, and they are monitored around-the-clock on screens in the city’s Real Time Crime Center.
Police said common charges included assault on law enforcement officers, common law robbery, felony breaking and entering, larceny and one charge of ethnic intimidation against a black man who assaulted a white man on the basis of race.