When the Bridgeview Village apartment complex makes the news, it's almost always bad news. Hidden amongst a recycling center, a sprawling cemetery, and a dense stand of trees, Bridgeview remains out of sight for most Charlestonians except when it's the site of a shooting, SWAT raid, or drug deal gone south.
On June 20, a 19-year-old Burke High School graduate named Denzel Curnell died of a gunshot wound after an off-duty police officer pursued him through the Bridgeview parking lot. Investigators from the S.C. Law Enforcement Division determined that Curnell's death was a suicide. The case is closed for now, although forensic pathologist Werner Spitz has requested a follow-up investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In my mind, the case raised broader questions about the apartment complex, a largely African-American low-income community near the northern end of the Charleston peninsula with about 300 units. Why, for example, did the management feel the need to hire off-duty cops in addition to the on-duty officers who already patrolled the area? And how bad is the crime problem there, really?
A review of 11 months' worth of Charleston Police Department incident reports at Bridgeview turned up a few surprising results. For example, the most common type of incident by far at Bridgeview was not violence, drug slinging, or theft — it was trespassing. Police keep a daily updated list of people who aren't allowed on the premises, whether that's because of outstanding warrants or previous bad behavior in the complex, and in 11 months, they caught 67 people trespassing. Most offenders were ticketed and released, although some repeat offenders were arrested. According to police, residents who knowingly invite people from the ban list onto the property can face eviction by Bridgeview management. (Bridgeview's managers and parent company, Greenville-based Vista Capital Management Group, did not return multiple interview requests for this story.)
Another interesting conclusion: Most of the crimes at Bridgeview were committed by outsiders. Even excluding the trespassing incidents, 61.5 percent of the suspects listed in incident reports had an address outside of Bridgeview. And the most commonly listed home city for suspects from outside of Bridgeview? It's not Charleston; it's North Charleston.
Trouble may come from outside, but it still comes. Brawls still erupt from time to time in the parking lots, and old drug pushers still show their faces in the breezeways at night.
Clay Middleton, an advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy, grew up in Bridgeview in the '80s and early '90s when the complex was still called Bayside Manor (most residents today still refer to the complex as Bayside). He remembers some of the same problems that exist today — and the same sorts of culprits.
When I share the findings of my investigation with Middleton, he isn't surprised to hear most of the suspects came from outside Bridgeview. "That's not surprising, because we're not animals," Middleton says. "I do recall having a safe childhood ... I saw some fights, but I also didn't see the police around there unless they were called."
That final facet of life in Bayside — the absence of police except when crimes were committed — has changed dramatically at Bridgeview in the past decade. Following nationwide law enforcement trends, the Charleston Police Department has taken an interest in community policing, which involves officers pounding the pavement in troubled neighborhoods and attempting to earn the trust of its residents. Often spurred by federal funding, the methods have had varied results around the country, from improved community relations in some neighborhoods to NYPD's oft-maligned stop-and-frisk policy.
In Bridgeview, community policing gets mixed reviews. Police credit the approach for reducing crime, but some residents feel they are under constant suspicion and surveillance. On a recent visit, one resident named D.J. told me he had been stopped by police three times in the six months he has lived at Bridgeview. One of those stops led to an arrest for marijuana possession.
"I walk down the street, I'll get questioned for no reason," he said. "They stereotype everyone."
Nobody ever talks to me here. When a reporter comes around Bridgeview asking questions, folks tend to be polite but wary.
On a recent afternoon trip to Bridgeview, four men sat on folding chairs and milk crates in the shade of an apartment breezeway, passing around a bottle of liquor in a paper bag and doing little to hide it. They said they were all visitors, not residents, but the oldest man in the group warned me I wouldn't have much luck getting people to talk.
"You can ask around, but you're not gonna get much around here," he said. "It's a tight-knit community."
There's an uneasy air about the place. It's like no other neighborhood in Charleston, a sort of panopticon of cop cars and surveillance cameras hemmed in by the woods' edge and often accessible by a single road in and out (police close a second entrance to restrict traffic at certain times of night). Buffered from the whoosh of traffic on Morrison Drive, it can be quiet here, except when a train blasts its horn to announce its entry into the peninsula.
On previous trips into Bridgeview to pick up a friend, I've been followed by an officer, perhaps because he didn't recognize my car. Today, as I wander from building to building asking people if they'd like to talk about law enforcement, a police cruiser never leaves the corner of my vision — peeking from around a corner, turning left when I take a left on the sidewalk. I nod to acknowledge the officer at the wheel, but I get no discernible response.
There's a term that people here use for the officers who crawl along in patrol cars: "the jump-out boys."
"I'm not saying it's a race thing, but it'll be mostly the black cops," says one man who appears to be in his 20s, standing in front of an apartment building as the sun starts setting. "They've got a few caucasians here and there that'll hop out and just label you. See, if it gets dark right now and I walk through right now, I'll be liable to get stopped for no reason, just for having on a color. So you're saying the color black makes me suspect or something, just because I'm wearing black pants and a black T-shirt? It happens like that a lot around here."
The issue of black clothing played a central role in the Denzel Curnell case. Officer Jamal Medlin, the off-duty cop who followed Curnell through the complex, reported that he started following Curnell after seeing him walk between buildings wearing all black.
The man I'm talking to doesn't want to give out his name, but he says he's lived in Bridgeview for two years, and he's thinking about moving. Part of the reason, he says, is the police.
"We don't mind the patrolling. We feel more secure and safe," he says. "But at the end of the day, you don't have to harass people."
This man, like a few others, issues me a warning: Keep an eye on your car. Bridgeview has a strict parking policy; all visitors must have tags and all cars without tags will be towed. I glance back over my shoulder at my car and decide to drive to the next building rather than walk. The next day, I walk over to Bridgeview rather than drive.
One woman, who stands at the edge of a breezeway and greets neighborhood children as they arrive home from daycare, says the climate has changed at Bridgeview since Curnell died. She knew him by the nickname "JaBa," as a lot of Bridgeview residents did, and she says he was a quiet type who would spend most of his time inside playing video games.
"Ever since the young man got killed, they'll have people pull you over and your car gets searched for no reason," she says. She also notes that when her male friends come to visit, officers often stop them on the sidewalk, question them, and demand to see identification.
Finally, I find someone willing to go on the record. Her name is Latosha Harley, and I meet her in a common area between apartments where she's leaning against a wall eating rice and beans off a paper plate. "They don't bother me," she says, referring to the police, "but what bothers me is when fights do go down and they don't do nothing."
One notable fight took place in November 2013. Known as the "Bayside Brawl," the all-female melee in the Bridgeview parking lot made news after a video of the incident racked up tens of thousands of views on YouTube.
"If y'all gonna fight, you're gonna fight me," a uniformed officer announced as he attempted to step between two women who had started to argue. "Y'all go the fuck home. We got too many TVs, too many cameras, it's over with. We done. We done." The fight escalated from there, with about a dozen women seemingly involved and a crowd gathering around them. The officer couldn't be seen in the frame of the video for several minutes.
The fight made the news when reporters saw the video and realized that the officer hadn't filed an incident report. He had been working off-duty for Bridgeview at the time of the incident. CPD launched a months-long internal investigation and eventually reprimanded the officer, along with an on-duty cop who later arrived as backup, for failing to file a report.
As I'm talking with Harley, a car alarm goes off nearby, and a police car that has been parked near the back of the complex rolls past us. Since off-duty officers are allowed to wear police uniforms and drive city-owned vehicles, it's impossible to tell if the officer is on duty or off duty.
Harley says she hasn't had any run-ins with the police in her five years at Bridgeview — she says men are more likely to be stopped on the sidewalk than women — but she does have a problem with the barricaded exits, which have made her friends late for work when a train stops on the tracks. A friend standing nearby, an older visitor with tight braided hair, pipes up with her own complaints.
"People got meth labs in Mt. Pleasant," she says. "I don't see them on lockdown."
"We do enforcement over there the same way we do enforcement every place else in this city."
That's Lt. Charles Hawkins, commander of the Charleston Police Department's Team 1 squad, which patrols the peninsula north of Calhoun Street. When he makes this statement about law enforcement techniques in Bridgeview, we're sitting in his substation office on Meeting Street, and I can feel my eyebrows arching almost involuntarily.
"Really?" I say.
"Yeah, enforcement over there is the same as every place else in the city. Bridgeview has an agreement, I guess, with their residents there because it's subsidized," Hawkins says. "So they're afforded some different rules with them as far as trespassing and people that don't live there."
Signs in the leasing office indicate that at least some of the residents are receiving aid from Section 8 housing vouchers. One thing that certainly sets Bridgeview apart from other Charleston apartment complexes is the frequent presence of off-duty officers working private security. According to records released by SLED following the Curnell investigation, Vista hires officers in two-to-five-hour shifts at both Bridgeview and the Palace Apartments, a vaguely art deco building on Upper King Street.
When you consider the fact that apartment management has hired off-duty police officers at least four days a week in recent months, incident reports involving off-duty officers are remarkably rare. In 11 months' worth of reports from Bridgeview, only one report aside from the Curnell incident — a trespassing case from May 2014 — mentions that an officer was working in an off-duty capacity.
Whatever the cause, whether it's community policing, private security, or Bridgeview's aggressive banning policy, anecdotal evidence suggests that Bridgeview has made a turn for the better. The police department doesn't track crime statistics specific to the complex, but crime is down in the Team 1 patrol area overall. The district has historically been plagued by property crimes and homicides, but homicide dropped 36 percent and robberies dropped 30 percent between 2012 and 2013 alone.
There's more to community policing than sidewalk stops. Hawkins says officers are participating in the Lunch Buddies program at Sanders-Clyde Elementary, where many Bridgeview children attend. Police also have an eight-member Community Action Team (CAT) dedicated to Bridgeview, Rosemont, and Athens Court whose job is partly to build relationships with people in the neighborhoods. As for the so-called "jump-out boys," Hawkins says officers are trained to ask questions. He says officers often know the neighborhoods well enough that they can recognize the face of someone who's not a local or who has caused trouble in the past.
"What they're instructed to do is, you walk up to somebody, you're working the area, 'Hey, I'm Lt. Hawkins with the Police Department ... I'm just checking. I don't know you; I'm out here checking to see if you live here or not,' and just ask for some cooperation," Hawkins says. "If they say, 'I don't want to talk to you, I'm leaving,' because it's Bridgeview, [the officers] may inquire a little bit more, or they may just watch you and see where you go, and then contact the management to see who lives in the apartment. And then they get back to management to say, 'Hey, we tried to stop a guy over there that went into 128-J. They didn't want to talk to us. There's no problem. Let's have a sit-down with them just so that they know, just so that those folks know.'"
Ten minutes after I leave Hawkins' office, he contacts me to let me know I should have taken him up on the offer of a ride-along at Bridgeview. While I was back at the office, an off-duty officer arrested a man on a cocaine trafficking charge.
"They got out with him because they knew he was on the ban list," Hawkins says over the phone. "One of the other CAT Team members arrested him for marijuana last week, and they saw him over by Building 127 and went out and approached him and got trafficking in cocaine from him."
"I'm just letting you know, put it in there," he adds. "That whole process over there works. The management, the people, and the officers just all working together."
Denzel Curnell would have turned 20 years old last week. His death added another dark chapter to the Bridgeview legacy, but on one positive note, it is the only shooting that has taken place this year in Bridgeview.
Several officers including Jamal Medlin, the officer who was with Curnell on the night he died, use boilerplate language in their reports to explain why they were on patrol in Bridgeview. "R/O (Officer Medlin) was on directed patrol inside the Bridgeview apartment complex due to the complex's history of violent crime and narcotic violations," Medlin writes in many of his reports (Medlin is back on patrol after a hiatus in the wake of the Curnell incident). Another officer writes that he is on patrol "in reference to numerous citizen complaints for narcotics and weapons law violations."
The history of Bayside and Bridgeview is well-documented in the annals of Charleston crime reporters, but the present does look a little brighter. Still, some advocates see room for improvement when it comes to community relations. Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, says constant police presence in Bridgeview can create an atmosphere of suspicion.
"Community policing seems to be a term that covers everything from the broken-windows theory of policing to roadblocks and stop-and-frisk, and I guess it depends on how the local law enforcement arm is defining that and seeing it," Middleton says. "But a key to it is supposed to be building trust in the community, and if some of the practices are doing the reverse, then it would not seem to be increasing public safety."
Clay Middleton says that if he were to go back to Bridgeview today, he would only know one person anymore, a woman who has stuck around since the '80s. But he also knows that being a stranger would be the least of his worries in the old stomping grounds where he used to play hide and seek as a child.
"If I go to Bayside Manor right now just to go, just to drive around and look at where I lived, just to sit in my car and reflect on how far I've come, — to say, 'Wow, I came from Bayside Manor, this wasn't supposed to happen' — a police officer will say, 'Why are you here?'" he says. "I'll get a ticket, I'll get a warning. Yet I could go anywhere else in the city and not have that issue. I think there's a problem with that."
The statistics in this report are based on the 184 police incident reports that officers filed at Bridgeview Village between Sept. 4, 2013, and Aug. 4, 2014. They were obtained via a request to the Charleston Police Department under South Carolina's Freedom of Information Act.