by Paul Bowers
Members of the Charleston Branch NAACP expressed frustration with the slow trickle of information from the Charleston Police Department about the shooting death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell at a press conference this afternoon.
"In this case, silence is not golden but is confusing and infuriating," said Dot Scott, president of the local NAACP chapter. Curnell died of a gunshot wound outside of the Bridgeview Village apartments Friday night, and while Scott says witnesses saw a police officer pointing a gun at Curnell's body, some early e-mails from the police department suggested that Curnell's death may have been a suicide.
Police Chief Greg Mullen has remained tight-lipped about many details of the investigation, but he said in a press conference Monday that "there was no information presented to suggest that our officer had fired his weapon or that he was involved in the death of Denzel Curnell." Investigation of the scene of Curnell's death has been handed over to the State Law Enforcement Division, which ordinarily takes over investigations when an officer is involved in a shooting.
At the press conference, which was held in Brittlebank Park across the street from police department headquarters, Scott presented a series of unanswered questions:
Why was a young man with a clean legal record and a bright future in the military stopped by a police officer for simply being on the street? Why did his encounter with that officer end in what's alleged to be his suicide —and why would a left-handed young man in a stressful situation shoot himself in the right side of the head? Why would an officer trying to stop a suicide be seen by witnesses with his weapon in his hand?
Why did the agency with the officer involved process the crime scene before SLED's arrival? Why was the involved officer given time off and an opportunity to gather himself before speaking with investigators — a procedure usually followed when law enforcement officers fire their weapons and injure or kill their targets?"
Scott, who said she received phone calls from community members within 15 minutes after the shooting, said police and the mayor's office did not reach out to Curnell's family until after the press conference Monday. "If the police department came to think family, like I'd think they would, and said, 'I'm sorry for your loss; we are investigating this and we'll get to the bottom of it,' that would have gone a long way," Scott said. "Folks whose dogs get killed sometimes get a better reaction that, you know, 'We're sorry you lost your pet.'"
Scott also questioned the idea that Curnell's death was a suicide, saying that Curnell's mother died several months ago.
"I would venture to say anybody that's out here today, if you've lost a mother, you've been depressed," Scott said. "So we're not going to swallow that because he lost his mother he was depressed and he would have killed himself. What an opportunity, to wait until you get in front of a police officer and you're going to commit suicide. It doesn't make sense."
Curnell's family and witnesses from the scene have not spoken to the press. Scott urged any witnesses to call the family's lawyer, Andy Savage.
One person who stood behind Scott at the press conference was Jacquelyne Johnson, a retired math teacher who taught Curnell at Burke High School. She described Curnell as a respectful, thoughtful student who never got into fights.
"Out of all the years I've known him, I never heard him mutter an ugly word to anyone," Johnson said. "And he was left-handed."