CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen released new information in the death of 19-year-old Denzel Curnell at a press conference that he described as the first step in dealing with the results of the investigation into the June 20 incident.
Mullen said his officer observed Curnell walking in the parking lot and on breezeways between buildings at the Romney Street apartment complex on the night of the shooting and approached him to determine whether Curnell, as either a resident or guest, had a legitimate reason for being there. Mullen said that was part of the officer's responsibility as security for the complex.
Mullen said Curnell had his right hand in his pocket and did not comply with repeated demands from the officer to show his hand.
"When a subject won't remove his hand from a concealment position, that can be perceived as a threat," Mullen said.
The officer drew his service weapon when Curnell would not show his hand, Mullen said, and was able to physically push Curnell to the ground. While the officer was reholstering his weapon, Curnell pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot himself, Mullen said.
Mullen said Curnell's death was a "true tragedy," the loss of "a young man who had touched many lives," and a reminder of the need to be "ever observant of those around of us who may need our assistance."
"It has been difficult for the police department, it has been difficult for the community, it has been difficult for the family and it has been difficult for the officer," Mullen said.
Mayor Joseph Riley said his heart goes out to Curnell's family. Riley commended the officer and the police department, citing a 70 percent decrease in violent crime in the past seven years.
Mullen also spoke to the officer's state of mind.
"Police officers are just as devastated when tragic things happen," he said, adding that he had spoken to the police officer Monday afternoon and expected him to return to active duty either Tuesday or Wednesday.
Mullen again defended his department calling in the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate after the shooting, calling its independent investigation of the incident the "prudent, professional and accurate step." Mullen said SLED had just closed the case a few hours earlier, but that he had not yet seen the file.
"I am eagerly awaiting the report myself," Mullen said.
Mullen acknowledged that in many cases, there is a "vacuum" caused by a SLED investigation, but said his department wasn't able to release details earlier because it was not actively investigating the incident.
But the lack of forthcoming information, he said, can cause anger, distrust and distribution of inaccurate information in the community.
Mullen said he considered it "of paramount importance to find out exactly what happened," and he wanted to make sure that his department did not provide inaccurate information.
"Inaccurate information was driving the situation, making it difficult for everyone," Mullen said.
Addressing Charleston Police community partners, Mullen pledged his department's continued efforts to strive for excellence.
"We are committed to doing the very best we can to maintain the most professional and most ethical agency possible. Our integrity is our foundation," he said. "We will find the truth and we will act on that truth no matter what it is."
The press conference came just hours after Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced her office would not seek an indictment against the police officer.
In a letter to the SLED, Wilson recommended the agency not seek criminal charges against the officer based on the evidence collected.
Wilson states in the letter that the evidence makes it "clear" to her that Curnell committed suicide outside the Bridgeview Apartments.
"The fact that Mr. Curnell suffered from depression and died in the prime of his life is nothing short of tragic," Wilson wrote.
Wilson also states that the evidence directly contradicts the witness accounts of two adults and a juvenile who claimed to have seen the officer shoot Curnell from behind and from some distance.
"The descriptions and characteristics of the gunshot wound documented by both EMS and the pathologist directly contradict these witnesses' accounts," the letter states. "The witnesses' statements are also not supported by the condition of Mr. Curnell's revolver (which fired the fatal shot) or [the officer]'s pistol (which was not fired at all)."
Wilson also states that only Curnell's DNA was found on his revolver and that gunshot residue was found on Curnell but not on the officer, all of which does not support the witnesses' claims.
The SLED investigation did not close with Wilson's letter, according to SLED spokesman Thom Berry. Berry said Wilson's letter would go into the case file, but the entire investigation must be reviewed by a supervisor before it is officially closed.
Three days after the shooting, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten issued a statement to address rumors about the eyewitness accounts that claimed the officer had shot Curnell in the back. Wooten stated she had become aware of "a number of concerns" surrounding Curnell's death.
"The decedent, Denzell Curnell, did not sustain a gunshot wound to the back but, died as a result of a single gunshot wound to the head," Wooten said in a statement."The investigation by SLED and the Coroner’s Office is ongoing and until such time as it is complete, I will not make a ruling as to the “Manner” of death."
Three days after that, the Charleston Chapter of the NAACP held a press conference, stating there were too many questions about Curnell's death that had, at that point, not been answered.
“Silence is not golden, but is confusing and infuriating,” NAACP Charleston chapter president Dot Scott said.
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