Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How one officer's aggression led to the death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell

Profiles in profiling

Posted by Chris Haire on Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 8:27 PM

When Officer Jamal Medlin of the Charleston Police Department spotted Denzel Curnell at approximately 10:30 the night of June 20, the only suspicious behavior the 19-year-old exhibited was wearing a hoodie during a warm summer night and walking around a problem-plagued apartment complex. He was not looking into car windows. He was not stumbling about. He was not drinking from a brown paper bag or smoking out of a glass pipe. He was wearing a long-sleeve hoodie, and for Medlin that was enough. He was sure the teen was up to no good and he was out to prove it. Minutes later, Curnell was dead.

According to Officer Medlin's own report, he pulled his car around and stopped feet from the teen. The officer then yelled out to Curnell. The young man acknowledged the police officer's presence but didn't speak. He did not attempt to flee or suddenly look nervous. And he was no longer wearing a hood.

In fact Medlin could see the 19-year-old's face so clearly the officer could tell that Curnell had a "distant look." Again, Medlin thought this was suspicious. Again, he was convinced that Curnell was up to no good.

At this time, Medlin noticed Curnell's right hand was in a pocket. He didn't like this. It troubled him. The officer told the teen to take his hand out. He refused, as was his right. After all, wearing a hoodie was not a crime, and Medlin hadn't accused him of one.

During the initial part of the encounter, Medlin never once considered that Curnell was simply taking a walk or was lost deep in thought. For the officer, the teen's nonaggressive actions were a clear sign of transgressive behavior. And so Medlin treated him as an aggressive threat. He drew his gun and pointed it at the teen.

That overreaction cost Denzel Curnell his life.

From that point on Meldin's actions became even more troubling. When the teen turned around and began to walk away — as is his right since the officer, by his own omission, did not suspect him of having committed a crime — the officer, who was so threatened by the 19-year-old mere moments ago that he drew a firearm, now was emboldened to approach the teen. The officer grabbed Curnell by his hoodie and attempted to "escort" the teen to the squad car, once again taking an action that not only violated the teen's rights but intensified the situation.

As for how pleasantly Medlin escorted Curnell to the car is anyone's guess, but chances are the phrase is a watered down euphemism at best, much like when an officer "assists" a suspect to the ground.

At this point, it's worth noting that in Medlin's own account, he never once refers to Curnell as a suspect. And for good reason: The only crime that Denzel Curnell was guilty of in Jamal Medlin's eyes was wearing a hoodie on a warm summer night. One wonders what Medlin would make of a man in tuxedo or a woman in a housecoat strolling outside the Bridgeview apartment complex at night after a day where the temperature topped out at 89. Dressed equally as inappropriately as the 19-year-old, would they too have been stopped? The answer is obvious — no. After all, they don't fit the profile.

What's most curious about Medlin's account after this point is what didn't happen: Curnell remained absolutely silent. He didn't speak. He didn't curse. He didn't question. He didn't tell the officer to leave him alone. And still, Officer Medlin found him to be threatening, all because he was wearing a hoodie and his hand remained in his pocket, where it had every right to be.

On the way to the squad car, Medlin says that Curnell then began to resist, and so the officer did what anyone would do when faced with such a threat — he let the teen go. In fact, he let the 19-year-old walk approximately three yards away — nine feet, the length of an entire car.

Curnell then got down on his knees, all on his own. Medlin asked the teen to take his hand out of his pocket. He didn't. He didn't have to. And at no point did the officer try to pull Curnell's hand from his pocket. Apparently, what was once threatening from a distance was not so threatening up close.

Despite Curnell's submission, Medlin wasn't satisfied. The officer once again overcame his initial fears — the ones that caused him to draw his weapon in the first place — and so he used his whole body — all 300 pounds of it, according to Curnell family attorney Andy Savage — to push the 19-year-old to the ground. Officer Medlin was now on top of the teen.

The 145-pound Curnell tried rolling back over, but the officer wouldn't let him. Again, he was silent. Again, his hand was in his pocket. Again, Medlin did not suspect him of having committed a crime other than wearing a hoodie on a summer night.

Now that Officer Medlin was on top of the teen, he apparently felt more at ease. He was in control of the situation. The suspect — scratch that — the victim, as Medlin calls him, was on the ground. And so the officer felt that now was the time to holster his weapon. When he did, Curnell pulled his hand out of his pocket, uttered the only two words he said during the encounter — "Fuck it" — and shot himself in the head.

That the teen managed to pull his gun out of his pocket and bring it to his head while he was face down on the ground is to some degree remarkable. That he was able to do it while another man, an apparently 300-pound trained officer of the law, was on top of him is extraordinary. But that's how it all reportedly happened.

If you are to believe Mayor Joe Riley, Police Chief Greg Mullen, and Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Officer Jamal Medlin was faultless in the tragic death of Denzel Curnell. In fact, if Riley is to be taken at his word, then Medlin executed his job perfectly. At no point in time did his actions escalate the situation. At no point did he violate Curnell's rights. At no point did he determine that a 19-year-old teen was up to no good, all because he was a wearing a hoodie and walking around the Bridgeview apartments, where he had once lived and where some family members still did.

Mullen, meanwhile, acknowledges that Curnell was well within his rights not to speak to Medlin and to walk away, but that his hand, situated as it was in his pocket, was a threat in and of itself. Presumably, this threat was even more threatening when the teen's back was to the officer.

Ultimately, the fact that Curnell had a gun in his pocket that he had reportedly taken from his stepfather is irrelevant. And in a way, it's also irrelevant that the teen had been discharged from the military because he had been suicidal following the death of his mother, many months ago. The only thing that matters here is that at the time of the teen's tragic encounter with Jamal Medlin, the officer had no cause to believe the 19-year-old had actually committed a crime, and as a result, he never should have drawn his gun and aimed it at Curnell, grabbed him, "escorted" him to the car, or threw him on the ground. If Curnell was truly suicidal at the time, then this act of aggression probably only intensified the feelings that he might have been having.

In the end, and with the evidence that is presently at hand, there is no other conclusion that can be drawn from Officer Jamal Medlin's police report other than this: Denzel Curnell may have taken his own life, but Medlin himself was the force that put that final act in motion. At every step of the way, he could have backed off and saved a life. He didn't. And now a young man is dead.


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