Kyle Vass Published

Community Seeks Police Reform After Shooting On Charleston's West Side

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On April 30, Charleston Police officers shot Denaul Dickerson, a 33-year-old Black man, while attempting to make an arrest on Charleston’s West Side. The incident has left many people in the community wondering why police resorted to shooting Dickerson who had brandished a knife.

Later that day, Charleston Police Department Chief Tyke Hunt held a press conference to address the officer-involved shooting. At the press conference, Hunt played body-worn camera footage of the incident.

In the footage, Dickerson can be seen having a conversation when he suddenly sprints away a few yards away. Dickerson begins walking away when he pulls out a knife and tells police to shoot him. “I told you all last time to kill me,” screamed Dickerson, as he moved away from police.

People who had interacted with Dickerson before, including Hunt, said they believe he suffers from mental health issues. Audio from the footage shows Dickerson asked police officers to shoot him nine times in the three minutes he was pursued before being shot.

The footage also revealed conversations among officers where they expressed disbelief that none of what appeared to be 20 officers on the scene had a Taser. One officer said, “We ain’t got a Taser. Nobody’s got a Taser. Nobody’s got one.” Another officer on the radio was heard saying, “Requesting any unit that’s got a Taser. We ain’t got a single taser out here?”

When an officer with a Taser finally arrived, after a three-minute pursuit on foot, the Taser was deployed, but it failed to attach to Dickerson.

Shortly after the Taser was used unsuccessfully, several officers began to move in on Dickerson. When they got within approximately 20 feet of him, Dickerson stopped walking away and faced the officers. The police opened fire, shooting five rounds at Dickerson who fell to the ground and began crying. Multiple officers exclaimed “Shots fired!” and began administering medical care to Dickerson.

When asked by a reporter at the press conference why only one out of what looked like 20 officers had a Taser, Hunt said a lot of his officers aren’t current on their Taser recertifications.

“Tasers do require recertification and, unfortunately, the COVID pandemic really hampered us getting instructors here to recertify our officers.”

Two days after the shooting, protesters gathered on the steps of Charleston’s City Hall to speak out against what they see as another act of violence against Black people in Charleston by the police.

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Kyle Vass
Protestors gather two days after the shooting of Denaul Dickerson on the steps of city hall in Charleston, W.Va., Sunday, May 2, 2021.

“I feel like we’re just consistently being gas-lit as a community when it comes to addressing our needs,” said Takeiya Smith, a youth and racial justice organizer in Charleston.

Smith said she and others have spent years trying to get city officials to develop a mental health intervention team. According to Smith, an intervention team would show up when people are having mental health crises in public and find a solution that wouldn’t result in violence.

“We have given the city and elected officials solutions to these really complex problems, such as mental health, and community engagement. And, we just haven’t made the progress that we should have made by this point.” she said.

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Kyle Vass
Youth and racial justice organizer Takeiya Smith reads a prepared speech outlining community frustrations in getting police reforms to happen in Charleston, W.Va., Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Smith said two years ago, a young, Black woman who was having a mental health crisis on the West Side was met with an officer mounting her and punching her in the back of the head repeatedly. After that incident, city officials promised to do better. But, she said no real change has come about since then.

A common point brought up by protesters at the event was a recent request by the Charleston Police Department for gas masks. Two weeks ago, Charleston City Council approved $200,000 for CPD to buy gas masks. Yet, the protestors said they’ve been told the city doesn’t have money for a mental health intervention team and they question the spending priorities.

“The only reason the city is getting gas masks is because we were protesting last year and they saw what happened around the world. And, they don’t want that to happen here,” said Martec Washington, an activist who lives on Charleston’s West Side.

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Kyle Vass
Activist Martec Washington addresses a crowd of protesters about police spending and a lack of officer training in Charleston, W.Va., Sunday, May 2, 2021.

Washington added that all of the protests that have happened for racial equality in Charleston have so far been peaceful.

“All we did was stop a little bit of traffic, and inconvenience people like Black people are inconvenienced every day by walking out of their door and just living life. So I mean, to me, this is like spitting in my face.”

Washington said money spent on riot gear would be better spent preventing what he thinks are incidents of police violence that he says people end up having to protest later.

“If you can spend $200,000 for gas masks, you can spend $200,000 for a couple people to come help some of these homeless people get up off the streets, so that we can prevent people from being out here saying that they’re gonna stab somebody,” he said, referring to Dickerson who Charleston residents have identified as someone who experiences homelessness.

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Kyle Vass
Chad Carpenter addresses Charleston City Council as a public speaker, asking the council to develop a mental health intervention team in Charleston, W.Va. Monday, May 3, 2021.

The following day at a Charleston City Council Meeting, five of the seven public speakers, including Washington and Hunt, spoke before the council about the shooting of Dickerson. However, none of the council members who were present brought it up. Dickerson was still in the ICU at a Charleston area hospital at the time this article was published.

Note: The City of Charleston announced today that it has hired a mental health coordinator to oversee the work of a mental health response team.