Crime & Courts

Inside the 48 hours that shook Charlotte: As rocks flew, riot cops fled for safety.

Against the fury of a mob and a hailstorm of stone, Charlotte police were powerless to rescue even themselves in the earliest hours of September’s rioting.

Filings this week in federal court provide the most detailed accounting to date of two nights of unprecedented violence that crippled Charlotte after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott on the afternoon of Sept. 20.

Details of the city’s response are contained in a filing made by city attorneys in response to a complaint from eight Charlotte residents that police used tear gas, riot techniques and other forms of excessive force against peaceful protesters. Their attorneys asked a judge to issue a temporary restraining order banning police from using such tactics against non-violent demonstrators.

What emerges is a portrait of a city overwhelmed by violence, fueled by deepening national protests of police shootings of African-Americans. Although thousands demonstrated peacefully for a week, the account focuses on pockets of vandalism, looting and assaults on police that attracted international attention.

According to the city’s chronology, evidence technicians began to be escorted from the scene about four hours after an officer shot Scott. Darkness fell and menacing crowds gathered around them.

At 9 p.m., an officer found himself trapped in his car – he was surrounded by a crowd and people started jumping on his vehicle and tried to overturn it.

Officers who came to his aid were then encircled by the taunting crowd, estimated at 150 people. A call went out for two squads of officers from the Civil Emergency Unit, the city’s riot unit. By 9:30 p.m., they set up a defensive line so the last of the crime scene officers could reach their cars.

Commanders then decided that removing the 30 or so riot police might de-escalate the situation. A CATS bus was sent to get them, but agitation was growing around them.

At 10 p.m., tensions surged. “News cameras turn on lights for live broadcasts,” says an affidavit filed in the case, “and the level of irritation in the crowd grows noticeably.”

At 10:15 p.m., a fusillade of bottles rained down on officers. Then some in the crowd found a pile of rocks at a nearby rail bed improvement project.

They unleashed them on police, who retreated to the bus – and were quickly surrounded.

Response to suit

In the court filing made by city attorneys Daniel Peterson and Mark Newbold, police acknowledge using an array of munitions – from tear gas to smoke canisters to sting grenades and non-lethal bullets. But they say they used the chemical weapons and other force either to defend themselves or after giving protesters ample warning.

Documents describe police fleeing the crowd that had threatened to overwhelm them on the first night of violence, when officers were pelted with rocks for at least three hours – leading to more than a dozen injuries – before protective shields arrived. In another instance, an uptown protester rubbed the blood of shooting victim Justin Carr upon the faces of several officers standing near her.

In several instances, police commanders limited their response to the growing violence in an attempt to defuse tensions, documents indicate. Amid the largely peaceful protests, city attorneys said, officers were sometimes the target of violence from residents they were sworn to protect.

“Rather, this case is about a throng of people, in the immediate hours and days after Mr. Scott’s death, that took advantage of the perceived anonymity of the crowd, in order to perpetrate mayhem,” they wrote.

“Specifically, CMPD officers were assaulted with rocks and other large projectiles ... private citizens were assaulted, one person was murdered, businesses were damaged and looted, tractor trailers were ransacked, traffic was blockaded and fires were set in the streets of Charlotte and on Interstate 85.”

Braxton Winston, one of the citizens who brought the lawsuit against police, said demonstrators at the shooting scene that afternoon were demanding that Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Police Chief Kerr Putney and other city officials come to the scene to answer questions about Scott’s death.

Police and citizens at first interacted calmly. Officers answered questions and engaged in conversation with people crowded around the shooting scene.

But according to the city’s filings, Winston’s own Facebook video stream also reflected how the civility deteriorated. “F--- the police,” the crowd chanted. Other bystanders screamed in officers’ faces, “You’re a bitch ass n-----,” the documents said.

First tear gas

Surrounded at the CATS bus on the first night and under assault by rocks, Sgt. Sam Orlov grabbed what he thought was a smoke canister to drive the crowd back. Instead, he threw a tear gas container, the filings said.

According to an affidavit from Maj. Mike Campagna, Capt. Ken Schul used the bus public address system to warn that police would use chemical agents if the crowds did not allow the bus to leave. Instead members of the crowd moved in and rocks flew, keeping some police from boarding the bus.

Police fired what is known as a stinger grenade, which contains rubber pellets and an irritant known as OC powder, then a flash bomb, the documents said. Then the bus pulled out.

Other riot officers were still lined up nearby on old Concord Road. As the crowd descended, the police formed two lines, back to back, to protect themselves. They were soon surrounded.

Officer Chris Frunzi was struck and went down. Officer Benjamin Hearn was hit in the shoulder and forearm. Officer Jay Rubino took a rock to the head and suffered a concussion.

Just before 11 p.m., police gave another dispersal order followed by hand-tossed tear-gas canisters “in a self-defensive effort to cease the barrage of rocks being thrown at officers,” the documents said.

Rifle case in car

Police tried to head south but were blocked by the crowd. They moved to a nearby overpass, leaving a marked police car behind.

It was soon looted, forcing the officers to push back into the crowd to the car to keep a rifle case from being stolen “and used by a rioter on a civilian or CMPD officer,” the filing said.

All the while, the barrage of rocks continued, the violence worsening. Outnumbered 4 to 1, police started firing non-lethal ammunition containing a powdered irritant.

At 11:45 p.m., a portion of the crowd headed toward nearby W.T. Harris Boulevard, damaging two police cars.

At midnight, after police say they had been under attack for some three hours, protective shields finally arrived.

At 1 a.m., the crowd headed toward Interstate 85. Twenty-five minutes later, with police now more than a mile away, demonstrators blocked traffic at Harris and North Tryon Street and then on I-85 by pulling construction barrels into the roadways.

“At that point, CMPD had no choice but to re-engage to stop this illegal conduct and dispatched a full platoon of [riot] officers to I-85,” the filing said.

Looting of I-85 trucks

The violence would continue for more than two hours – with rioters throwing rocks from overpasses on passing I-85 traffic.

Tractor-trailers were stopped and looted. Fires were set. Traffic on I-85 halted. Police say they used stinger grenades and other techniques to disperse the crowds.

At 3:14 a.m., police reported that rioters were hurling alternators taken from the looted trucks. Several more officers were injured. Capt. Nate King was struck both by a bottle and a rock.

Twenty minutes later, police warned employees of the Wal-Mart on North Tryon to lock their doors. Looters broke in anyway.

“Employees inside were terrified,” Campagna wrote. “Mobile CEU officers respond quickly and are able to prevent significant damage and looting.”

Some began breaking into nearby convenience stores – a QT and a Circle K. It was 4 a.m. before order was restored.

Police said about 25 officers were injured, at least two with concussions.

Sept. 21: Uptown erupts

The next evening, about 1,000 people gathered in Marshall Park to protest the Scott shooting.

Later, about half walked to the Little Rock AME Zion Church while the others headed west toward the EpiCentre. Although the uptown group did not have a parade permit, CMPD decided to let the march continue with police keeping traffic out of the way.

Just after 8 p.m., they entered the EpiCentre. Campagna was the only officer inside.

Within minutes, he heard the shattering of windows at the Kandy Bar and called for help. Chairs were then hurled at Suite, another club at the EpiCentre.

Campagna called in the riot squad, led by Capt. Rob Dance. At 8:25 p.m., the riot-clad officers were set up in front of the Omni Hotel, then moved between the Ritz-Carlton and the EpiCentre.

When rioters began leaving the EpiCentre, police pulled back to de-escalate, the city said in its filing. “However they had been spotted by the crowd, which immediately followed them up the street.”

When the crowd tried to follow the riot squad into the Omni, police established a line by the parking garage on West Trade Street.

Crowds moved in. Water bottles were thrown at police.

A bang and then blood

At 8:30 p.m., “a fuse lit explosive device” – apparently some kind of firecracker – came out of the crowd and exploded at the feet of police.

Dance asked superiors for permission to use tear gas. He was turned down out of concern for the number of peaceful demonstrators, filings said.

A minute later, 21-year-old Justin Carr, standing between the Omni and College Street, was hit in the head by a gunshot. 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 murder. Authorities say he has admitted to shooting Carr.

But the crowd, believing Carr had been shot by police, erupted.

A woman who says she was standing next to Carr – later identified as Elsie Marie Greene – rubbed Carr’s blood on the arms and faces of officers Dennis McClain, Nick Palomba and Charles Bolduc, court documents allege. (Greene, who is charged with three counts of assault on a police officer, wouldn’t comment. The officers could not be reached.)

Meanwhile, the crush of people blocked medical personnel from reaching Carr, the filing said. Firefighters finally carried him to a van nearby, then took him to a Medic ambulance.

At 8:40 p.m., as he drove to the scene, Officer Joseph Pendergrast was struck by a wrench thrown from the crowd. His windshield was also shattered, sending glass into his eye, Campagna’s affidavit said.

Looting of the EpiCentre continued. Within minutes, full bottles of beer, liquor and champagne – along with large rocks and concrete – were being thrown at police at Trade and College.

According to the affidavit, police began giving a series of dispersal orders to the crowd just before 9 p.m. Eventually, they gave bystanders 20 minutes to leave, then counted down with subsequent orders.

When the crowd failed to disperse, Dance gave the order for tear gas and smoke canisters to be used. But then he was struck in the face with something thrown from the crowd and removed for treatment. He later returned.

Assaults on police, bystanders

Assaults on police and bystanders continued into the night. A group of demonstrators pushed a trash bin filled with cardboard into Trade Street and tried to set it on fire in front of the Transit Center. Police stopped the blaze from being set.

Once police moved into the crowds, dozens of otherwise peaceful demonstrators were arrested and charged with such crimes as failure to disperse, impeding traffic and curfew violations.

Najah McEntire of Charlotte says the chaos was overwhelming. When police started firing smoke canisters, she told the Observer that she stood in Trade Street with her arms raised.

When she was arrested for failure to disperse, she said a police officer shouted in her ear, “Are you proud of yourself? Are you f------ satisfied?”

“I was thinking, ‘At any moment, I could be a hashtag,’ ” McEntire told the Observer this week, an account in which she complimented some of the police she dealt with that night.

“I made a mistake. I was in Marshall Park, and then I walk into riot gear? What the hell?”

Constitutional rights, but whose?

The lawsuit filed by the citizens was timed to allow peaceful protests to proceed without police intervention last weekend. Those demonstrations came and went without incident.

But the larger issue of how Charlotte-Mecklenburg police will respond to public protests remains.

In their lawsuit, the attorneys for the eight residents accuse police of using policies “designed to target and punish demonstrators, and to deter them from ... speech and assembly activities.” Some of those measures, including the use of flash bombs, chemical agents and excessive force, came without warning, they say, and “advanced no legitimate law enforcement objective.”

In response, city attorneys say police are experienced in cooperating with residents involved in peaceful protests. This was a riot, they say, not an expression of constitutional rights.

“Assaults on police officers,” the attorneys wrote, “are not protected by the First and Second Amendments.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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