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Charlotte’s unsolved mass shooting: There’s a reason police have no witnesses, activists say.

A demonstrator, right, speaks with a CMPD officer outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government...
A demonstrator, right, speaks with a CMPD officer outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. Demonstrators joined together at the Charlotte- Mecklenburg Government Center in protest of the killing of George Floyd and other victims of police officers around the country(Jeff Siner | Jeff Siner | Charlotte Observer)
Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 7:58 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Devna Bose/Charlotte Observer) - Hundreds witnessed a mass shooting last month on Charlotte’s Beatties Ford Road. No one has been arrested for one major reason: Bystanders won’t come forward.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officials said at a recent press conference they suspect potential witness are fearful of retaliation. But some Charlotteans say witnesses haven’t come forward because of the police department’s poor relationship with the city’s Black community.

“People aren’t going to talk to someone they can’t trust,” community activist Gemini Boyd said. “It’s just that simple. They are watching people across this nation being murdered by the police. It doesn’t make no difference if it’s in Georgia, Kentucky or … Minnesota where Mr. Floyd was murdered.”

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests in Charlotte and across the country last month. The June 21 shooting on Beatties Ford Road came during Juneteenth weekend.

Celebrations began the Friday before, but by Sunday night the atmosphere shifted from joyous to deadly when shots rang out. Four people were killed, while at least 10 others were either struck by bullets or cars at the scene.

Within hours, police officials began asking Charlotteans to come forward with any and all information to help with the Beatties Ford investigation. Boyd said he doesn’t expect much of a response.

“No, people aren’t going to trust CMPD,” he said. “You need (to) trust no one you think might kill you the very next day.”

Even in the chaos of that night — with bullets “coming from everywhere” — the actions of one CMPD officer on Beatties Ford reinforced for Boyd the fragile and tenuous relationship between the police and the Black community.

And he captured it on video.

‘LIKE A MASS SHOOTING’

Boyd remembers the shots came out of nowhere. Days later, he would still be trying to figure out why he was even there.

“But you know, sometimes things happen for a reason, and I think the reason I was there was the video,” Boyd said. “That’s the only thing I can think of. If I wasn’t there the video would (have) never been taken.”

Boyd, who works with The Bail Project to combat the symptoms of mass incarceration, began livestreaming on Facebook when he arrived at Beatties Ford Road that Sunday night around 12 a.m. About 500 people had gathered, he said.

While some have called it an “impromptu Juneteenth block party” or “street party,” Boyd says it was “just people hanging out.” He was only there for about nine minutes before nearly 200 rounds were fired into the crowd.

“Bullets were coming from everywhere,” Boyd said. “It was just chaotic. It was almost like a mass shooting.”

His video shows bystanders scattering, running in different directions as shots ring out.

Boyd lay between two cars, and when the gunfire finally stopped, he tried to get through the crowd to help. He reminded people to check for pulses of those lying on the ground. He directed police officers and medics to people who needed help.

About 15 minutes after he began streaming, Boyd’s video shows a police officer walking through a parking lot, pointing a rifle at bystanders, some of whom quickly put their hands in the air.

“Get the f--- back!” the officer can be heard yelling, as screaming and car honking continues in the background. Gunfire had, by that point, subsided.

Boyd unsuccessfully implored other officers on the scene — who were tending to the victims, blocking traffic, and helping ambulance arrivals — to intervene.

“Y’all, talk to that man!” Boyd begged them.

In the video, no other officers are seen with their weapons drawn. Boyd’s video shows the officer point the rifle at several people while medics start finding critically injured people on the street. Bystanders watch, and cry, as first responders attempt CPR on the victims.

Boyd kept filming and he’s heard asking the officer to stop pointing the rifle at people who’d just witnessed a mass shooting.

“It didn’t matter that I was trying to help,” Boyd said. “It didn’t matter to that officer that he’s now put a strain or traumatized me from that.”

When asked about the incident at a press conference three days following the shooting, CMPD Deputy Chief Gerald Smith (who recently left the department for a police chief job in Richmond) said the officer did nothing wrong. Smith said he didn’t find a problem with officers taking control of the “chaotic” scene.

“He is assessing things and he is seeing the carnage,” Smith said in defense of the officer. “He gets out of his car, shots are fired and he assumes that this scene is still hot, that this is an active shooter scene. He goes, grabs his rifle and starts looking for threats. That’s about the time the video on social media kicks in. Seconds before that, bullets were still flying. He is clearing the area looking for threats.”

But it’s incidents like that one that North Carolina ACLU campaign manager Kristie Puckett-Williams said makes Charlotteans distrustful of the police.

“The police often arrive after a tragedy has happened, they add more trauma to the situation when they arrive and so people have to expose themselves to the trauma of the police if they don’t want to,” she said.

“The community is not wrong for not trusting the police.”

In recent years, CMPD officials have pointed to several efforts around addressing law enforcement relations with Charlotte’s Black community. Many programs focus on youth and mentorship. Others like COPS & Barbers see officers going into churches, barbershops and other businesses in predominately Black neighborhoods to talk about race relations and trust.

Still, protests in June against police brutality and over-policing in Black communities again magnified longstanding complaints about racism in Charlotte. And some in the Black community say they feel doubly betrayed because many of the city’s leaders — including the chief of police and the sheriff — look like them.

POLICE USED ‘AGAINST US’

Mistrust for police runs deep in the Black community and the unsolved Beatties Ford shooting illustrates how the impact from police violence is inextricably tied to Black crime victims’ ability to see justice.

The Black Lives Matter protest chant has echoed across America for weeks: “No justice, no peace, no racist police.”

Protests over Floyd’s death renewed calls for police reforms also heard in 2019 and 2016 when Danquirs Franklin and Keith Lamont Scott were killed by Charlotte police. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked protests against police brutality in cities across the country, including Charlotte, and garnered new attention for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Elected leaders in Charlotte have responded with a plan to “reimagine” the role of the city’s police department. A committee of city leaders, City Council members and activists has convened to closely examine CMPD’s policies and budget and make recommendations for change.

But it will take a significant amount of careful work to undo the damage that’s already been caused, activists say.

Policing in the South began with racial oppression.

Some of the country’s first officers in slave patrols tracked down runaway slaves, helping uphold the institution of slavery. And since, police have disproportionately killed and injured Black people. In almost every case, including fatal police shootings in Charlotte, officers have been absolved by department leaders and prosecutors.

Both policing history and current events, activists say, underpin widespread mistrust for law enforcement within the Black community. Meanwhile Black Charlotteans face disproportionately face higher rates of violent crime and murder in the city.

Last year was one of the deadliest in Charlotte’s history — the city saw 107 homicides in 2019, the highest figure since the early 1990s, and 2020 is on track to have a comparable murder rate. Violence disproportionately affects Charlotte’s Black community — nearly 80% of 2019′s homicide victims were Black, although only 35% of the city’s population is Black. Data on homicide victims so far this year is similar.

CMPD Lt. Spencer Cochran, who is Black, described the department’s relationship with the community as “very strong,” especially along the Beatties Ford corridor. He said over his 30 years with the department, he’s seen the relationship drastically improve and that he doesn’t think people “don’t trust police” in Charlotte.

“While there might be some that don’t trust, a majority of community members do,” he said in an interview this week. “And we’re always striving to do better.”

Police Chief Johnny Jennings said in an earlier interview with the Observer that if the “reason for [bystanders] not coming forward is the trust of CMPD, that bothers me more than anything. I want to make sure we do have that relationship with the community where they’re comfortable coming forward.”

Thelma Byers-Bailey, the longtime president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association near Beatties Ford Road, called the relationship “stable,” and said she’s only really witnessed it take a downturn since current protests began.

“I’m not saying that we haven’t had issues in Charlotte,” she said. “I’m saying the attitudes toward the police have degenerated because of recent events.”

Robert Wilson said he thinks it’s more deeply rooted. Wilson, who grew up on Beatties Ford Road and still lives there, said that police are an unwelcome presence in some parts of the community.

“Police come out when they are called because there is a problem,” he said. “Police are positioned in an area of town because that area of town is deemed as a problem. So for the folks that ain’t causing no problem, it’s seen as harassment.”

He said he believes that contributes to the police’s difficulty getting people to talk about what happened on Beatties Ford last month.

“I won’t say that there is trust in the community, between the people of the community and the police department,” Wilson said.

Local activist Robert Dawkins said the lack of trust between Black people in Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police stems from the “violent” way police treat people in the community who are affected by crime. People just don’t feel comfortable talking to them, Dawkins said.

“I think the city would be further along in solving [the Beatties Ford shooting] if the community had more trust in the police,” Dawkins said. “We, meaning Black people, have never in our life had a trust for the police because the police have been used against us.”

One of Puckett-Williams’ earliest memories is of her neighbor being dragged out of the house and beaten by police following a drunken altercation with family members.

Puckett-Williams, a Charlotte native, grew up on Nations Ford Road.

“I’ve watched the police patrol the area that I grew up in my entire life,” she said. “The brutality that I witnessed as a child has shaped how I viewed and interacted with the police my entire life.”

Then, there are the grieving fathers of Dairyon Stevenson and Jamaa Cassell — two of the people killed on Beatties Ford — who say they need the community to work with the police for closure.

THE GRIEVING FATHERS

Sixteen days after their sons were killed, Kenny Stevenson and Charles Billings joined CMPD officials at a news conference to make a public plea for help.

“I need the police to help me,” Billings said. “They took an oath to protect and serve.”

“Someone out there knows something,” Stevenson said. “And I need some kind of closure.”

Maj. Rob Dance, whose violent crime division includes CMPD’s homicide unit, acknowledged witnesses might be reluctant out of fear of retaliation, but he encouraged the community to “come together.” He’s also expressed frustration at the lack of help from the community regarding other shootings as well.

“We have not had one witness come forward,” he said.

“... When no one comes here with information, it’s sending a pretty loud and clear message. They just don’t care.”

Stevenson recalled having to tell his grandchildren — Dairyon was a father to seven children — the news that their dad had been killed.

“I’m putting it in God’s hand and I’m praying that he take the anger out of me ... And I promise my son, whoever did it, is gonna come to justice,” he said.

One month later, CMPD officials say they’ve had no breaks in the case.

Dance, in answering questions in early July about the stalled investigation, alluded to “real challenges to work through with police and our community” and police reform.

“These two men you just heard from: They lost their son. I think we all know, there’s been a lot of frustrations with police reform,” Dance said.

Then he asked: “But what does that have to do with bringing justice to the families who lost their loved ones out there?”

Matthew Griffin, Donovan Thomas and Laurel Deppen contributed.