World / Social Issues

Charlotte braces for more unrest after police kill allegedly armed black motorist

AP, Reuters

Police officers gave a black man multiple warnings to drop a handgun before one of the officers opened fire and killed him, Charlotte’s police chief said Wednesday, hours after protesters and police clashed in unrest that saw tractor-trailers looted and set on fire.

More than a dozen officers were injured, including one who was hit in the face with a rock. Authorities had to use tear gas to disperse the protests in North Carolina’s largest city, which joins Milwaukee, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, on the list of U.S. cities that erupted in violence over the death of black men at the hands of police.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said during a news conference that 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was shot because he was armed and posed a threat. But a woman who said she was Scott’s daughter posted a video on Facebook soon after the shooting, saying that her father, who had an unspecified disability, was holding a book, not a gun.

“My daddy is dead,” the woman screams on the video.

The police chief said the black officer who shot Scott was a plainclothes officer wearing a vest with “Police” on it. The officer did not have a body camera, but three uniformed officers who engaged the suspect were required to wear body cameras.

The North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union urged Charlotte police to release any footage of the shooting, but Putney said he couldn’t because of an ongoing investigation.

The ACLU noted that a new law restricting the release of such footage doesn’t take effect until Oct. 1. That new law says footage from police body or dashboard cameras can’t be released publicly without a court order.

The chief said officers were searching for a suspect when they saw Scott exit a vehicle with a handgun. He said the officers told him to drop the gun and that he got out of the vehicle a second time still carrying the gun.

“It’s time to change the narrative, because I can tell you from the facts that the story’s a little bit different as to how it’s been portrayed so far, especially through social media,” he said.

His comments were an apparent reference to the profanity-laced, hourlong Facebook video, which was taken down Wednesday. In the video, the woman appears to be at the shooting scene, which is surrounded by yellow police tape, as she yells at officers.

The woman did not respond to Facebook messages, and her claims could not immediately be verified by The Associated Press. It also was not clear if she witnessed the shooting.

The black officer who shot Scott, Brently Vinson, has been placed on administrative leave as is standard procedure in such cases. Vinson has been with the department for two years.

Police said the protests broke out around 7 p.m. Tuesday, about three hours after the shooting. TV footage showed dozens of protesters on Interstate 85 apparently looting semi-trucks and setting their contents on fire on the highway, shutting the highway down.

The police chief said 16 officers suffered mostly minor injuries and police cars were damaged after people began throwing rocks.

By 5 a.m. Wednesday, the streets were quiet and I-85 was moving again. Broken glass and rocks littered the ground where a police car had been vandalized. Less than 5 miles away, wooden pallets barricaded the entrance of a Wal-Mart that had apparently been looted.

Detectives recovered a gun at the scene and were interviewing witnesses.

“The officers gave loud, clear verbal commands, which were also heard by many of the witnesses,” the police chief said.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts appealed for calm while B.J. Murphy, an outspoken leader of the Nation of Islam, called for an economic boycott of the city. He said if “black lives don’t matter, black money shouldn’t matter.”

The protest in Charlotte came hours after hundreds of people rallied outside Tulsa police headquarters, calling for the firing of police officer Betty Shelby, who shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Friday during a confrontation in the middle of a road that was captured on police dashcam and helicopter video.

Shelby’s attorney has said Crutcher was not following the officers’ commands and that Shelby was concerned because he kept reaching for his pocket as if he were carrying a weapon. An attorney representing Crutcher’s family says Crutcher committed no crime and gave officers no reason to shoot him.

Local and federal investigations into that shooting are ongoing and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department was in regular contact with Charlotte officials.

“These tragic incidents have once again left Americans with feelings of sorrow, anger and uncertainty,” she said at the International Bar Association Conference in Washington. “They have once again highlighted — in the most vivid and painful terms — the real divisions that still persist in this nation between law enforcement and communities of color.”

Court records indicate that Scott had a criminal record including an assault conviction. Mecklenburg County records matching Scott’s name and birth date show he was charged in April 2004 with multiple counts, including felony assault with a deadly weapon. Records show that most of the charges were dismissed, and he pleaded guilty to a single charge of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon.

Records from nearby Gaston County show that Scott pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in 2015.

Charlotte authorities braced on Wednesday for a possible second night of rioting.

The trouble in Charlotte unfolded as demonstrators in Tulsa demanded the arrest of a police officer seen on video fatally shooting an unarmed black man who had his hands in clear view at the time.

The deaths were the latest to raise questions of racial bias in U.S. law enforcement, and they stoked a national debate on policing ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November.

Police shootings in cities including New York, Chicago and Ferguson have sparked more than two years of largely peaceful street protests punctuated by days of rioting and arson and given rise to the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called for an end to such killings. Her Republican rival, Donald Trump, questioned what the Tulsa officer was thinking in shooting a man he said seemed to pose no imminent threat.

Criminal investigations have been opened in both cities, and the U.S. Justice Department has started a separate probe into the Oklahoma incident to see if officers’ use of force amounted to a civil rights violation.

Seeking to soothe tensions, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts called for calm and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory offered prayers for the Scott family and local police.

“It’s very important that we all work together as a team to solve a very difficult issue and to bring peace and resolution,” the governor said in a statement.

Charlotte police chief Putney said 43-year-old Scott was seen on Tuesday getting into a vehicle holding a handgun. Police surrounded the car, Putney said, and Scott was shot by a black police officer after he exited the car and did not obey orders to drop his weapon.

Police said officer Vinson was in plainclothes when he shot Scott. Scott’s family said he was reading in his car and was unarmed, but the police chief disputed that.

“I can also tell you we did not find a book,” Putney told a news conference. “We did find a weapon.”

North Carolina allows for the open carry of handguns, including having a pistol in a vehicle.

In 2013 a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, Jonathan Ferrell, in Charlotte. Ferrell’s family received $2.25 million from the city in compensation.

Black activists and pastors who gathered on Wednesday at the apartment complex where Scott died called for an economic boycott of Charlotte.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” civil rights activist John Barnett told reporters.

Protesters in Oklahoma, meanwhile, have called for the arrest of Tulsa Police Officer Shelby, who is white, for the killing on Friday of Crutcher, 40, whose sport utility vehicle broke down and was blocking a road.

Shelby’s lawyer has said she feared for her life, believing Crutcher was reaching into his vehicle for a weapon. Lawyers for the Crutcher family released still images from police videos showing the car window was shut and said the use of force was not justified.

Two police videos, one taken from a helicopter and one from a patrol car dashcam, show Shelby following Crutcher as he walked slowly to his vehicle with his hands up. Shelby shoots him as he puts his hands on the car, and he falls to the ground.

Speaking in Cleveland, Trump said it appeared Crutcher had been doing what he was supposed to do: “This officer, I don’t know what she was thinking. … Was she scared? Did she choke?”

In a tweet on Wednesday, Clinton said: “Keith Lamont Scott. Terence Crutcher. Too many others. This has got to end.”

Speaking in New York City alongside relatives of Crutcher, civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton said his death was an outrage, and he urged both candidates to broach the topic of police shootings on Monday at their first head-to-head debate.

“Any debate that does not discuss this issue is a bogus debate,” Sharpton told a news conference. “This is a national crisis and it must be addressed.”