No silver bullet as cop shootings unleash chaos

As US cities struggle to find right response to defuse racial tensions, clashes continue

Protesters making their way onto a highway to block traffic as they march amid heavy police and National Guard presence during demonstrations against the fatal shooting of Mr Keith Scott in Charlotte.
Protesters making their way onto a highway to block traffic as they march amid heavy police and National Guard presence during demonstrations against the fatal shooting of Mr Keith Scott in Charlotte.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CHARLOTTE (North Carolina) • By now, it has become almost routine - the police shooting, the outrage, the protests. And the decisions. Do you release the footage? Do you deploy riot gear? Do you call in the National Guard?

For city leaders across the United States, this is the new reality, in which a tragically common incident - the shooting of a black man by police - has the potential to unleash chaos upon their communities, in which the wrong decision can set a city afire.

On Thursday, it was Charlotte's turn to struggle through those decisions. As they did, Mayor Jennifer Roberts and her police chief were drawing on the painful lessons learnt in places such as Ferguson in Missouri, Baton Rouge in Louisiana, Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis. But even with so much history as a guide, Ms Roberts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney have been unable to prevent violent clashes between protesters and police.

In Charlotte, the most heated debate has centred on how transparent the authorities should be about their investigation into Tuesday's fatal shooting of Mr Keith Lamont Scott. Mr Scott's family and police have given starkly different accounts of the shooting. Relatives say he was holding a book. Police say he was holding a gun.

At a news conference on Thursday, reporters asked whether police would release video footage of the incident recorded by officers' body cameras. Chief Putney said he had no plans to release the video, citing a long-standing policy not to do so until a shooting investigation is completed and unless there was a "compelling reason".

In stark contrast to Charlotte, officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this week waited just two days before releasing multiple videos and recordings documenting the fatal shooting of a 40-year-old black man in that city.

Still, to pin everything on the decision whether to release video footage is simplistic, said Mr Darrel Stephens, who served for years as Charlotte's police chief and is now executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association.

What is missed amid the controversy and hand-wringing over best practices and how best to defuse anger on the streets is the fact that these incidents continue to evolve, said Mr Stephens.

For example, the amplifying effect of social media continues to grow, he said. As does the level of national anger over such shootings, each of which draws more media attention and more national activists rushing to the scene.

"It's a whole new world, and it keeps changing," he said.

Hundreds defied a midnight curfew and continued protesting in the wee hours yesterday in Charlotte over the fatal police shooting.

North Carolina's governor has declared a state of emergency in Charlotte, and several hundred National Guard troops and highway police officers were deployed.

Police late on Thursday fired tear gas and what appeared to be rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators blocking a main highway, but the protests otherwise proceeded in a relatively calm manner.

In the centre of Charlotte, hundreds marched to the city police station carrying signs saying "Stop killing us" and "Resistance is beautiful".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2016, with the headline 'No silver bullet as cop shootings unleash chaos'. Print Edition | Subscribe