The Charleston Police Department has referred an incident involving two of its officers to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for independent review, according to an announcement from the mayor’s office on Thursday.
There’s no guarantee the FBI will take up the case, involving patrol officers Joshua Mena and Carlie McCoy, who have been scrutinized by some members of the Charleston community for the way they arrested Freda Gilmore, a black woman with special needs, earlier in October.
The incident went viral overnight after a woman standing nearby, Alisyn Proctor, posted a cell phone video of the arrest to Facebook. There, hundreds of people have viewed what appears to be McCoy on the ground with Gilmore, while Mena — who arrived on the scene after McCoy called for assistance — appears to be punching Gilmore.
Proctor also was arrested that night. Police say they charged her with a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct.
An internal investigation by the department's Division of Professional Standards cleared Mena and McCoy of any wrongdoing a week and a half later. Police leadership have said Gilmore was resisting arrest, and both officers were complying with the department’s policy for permissible use of force.
During a press conference at City Hall Thursday afternoon, retired Charleston Police Officer Eric Smith tried to explain Mena and McCoy’s actions on the night of Gilmore’s arrest.
“You can only use the information that is available to the officer at the time,” Smith said, referring to precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor.
Smith, who said he used to work on crime statistics during his time with the police department, explained that when Mena arrived to help McCoy, Mena likely couldn’t tell just by looking at Gilmore her size or the fact she has special needs.
“But [then] you throw in the mental health issues,” Smith said, “People with mental health, they don’t tire as quickly. They don’t feel pain as much. … They’re wired a little different, right? So they will fight, further to exhaustion, than normal people.”
A recent study from researchers at Indiana University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia reports a growing number of people are wrongly correlating evidence of mental health illness with acts of violence. Several organizations, including the Harvard Medical School in 2011, have pointed out that most individuals with psychiatric disorders are not violent.
Two Press Conferences Merged Into One
Smith and local members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) — reportedly the nation’s largest member-organization for sworn police officers — shared a joint press conference with Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin on Thursday, during which she and a group of concerned religious leaders spoke first.
There originally were supposed to be two separate press conferences. Goodwin said she decided to combine the events shortly before their scheduled times, after a private meeting with the police and clergy.
Goodwin’s address on Thursday was in response to a letter she and the city council received on Nov. 5 from local clergy, which declared Mena and McCoy employed “excessive and unreasonable force” and that the internal review of that force was “inappropriate and inadequate.”
The letter went on to request all Charleston police officers receive training on proper use of force, cultural sensitivity, mental health awareness, emotional intelligence, crisis intervention.
“During our conversation we found we were probably a little closer than we were farther apart,” Goodwin said of the private meeting.
Rev. Marlon Collins, one of the clergy at the combined press conference, said his group talked hours before the conference about ways they could avoid making it seem like they were against the city police department.
“We did not want to make this a black-white issue. It had black and white elements to it, but we did not want to talk about it,” Collins said. He suggested the conversation had grown more intensely focused on race since the Oct. 14 arrest, due to miscommunication.
To Goodwin, she said the joint press conference on Thursday was an effort to express support both for the community and its police.
“To say to our police officers publicly, ‘You do 71,000 plus calls a year for our citizens’,” Goodwin said. “‘We owe a debt of gratitude to you. We appreciate you.’ But to our community? ‘Yes. We need to do better’.”
Goodwin’s highlighted some other initiatives she and the Charleston city council have agreed to, in addition to requesting help from the FBI.
That includes a review of the police department’s policies with help from current and former members of the police department, according to a press release from Goodwin’s office.
Goodwin also has reportedly discussed with Police Chief Opie Smith getting officers to take the “One Mind” pledge created by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, to improve how police interact with people affected by mental illness.
Still No Response On Other Requests
Goodwin’s letter from the clergy wasn’t the only set of requests Goodwin and the city have received from the Charleston community, related to Gilmore’s arrest and the subsequent investigation.
Also on Tuesday, Nov. 5, a coalition of community organizations issued a similar list of requests, which included revising the police department’s use-of-force policy, mandating police officers have working body cameras on them during all shifts and creating a mental health intervention team.
That “#KeepUsSafeCharlestonWV coalition” additionally requested the police department finish implementing an eight-point, anti-racism platform that the city started years ago and didn’t complete.
Takeiya Smith from the coalition said during the press conference on Thursday the narrative had been taken over by the police.
“How many times did you say, ‘We support the community’?” Smith said of the Goodwin and comments made at the event. “‘We support the protection of the community’? ‘We support our community members with mental health issues, we support black women’?”
Goodwin said the city plans to hold another meeting for all of the parties involved in this matter soon. Coalition-member Smith said her group plans to continue holding Goodwin accountable for her response to the incident.
‘Our Community Is Forever Opened Up’
As for the family of Freda Gilmore, attorney Michael Cary said they still intend to file a lawsuit against the city. Their timeline is unclear.
He says he also plans to request the dismissal of Gilmore’s two misdemeanor charges from that night.
“We’re not against the City of Charleston Police Department,” Cary said of himself and Freda Gilmore’s parents, Richard and Kimberly. “There are several good officers who have dedicated their lives to the city of Charleston to make this place better … we just have to make sure we come together as a community, to make sure we weed out the officers that aren’t living up to the standards.”
Following the city press conference Thursday afternoon, Kimberly Gilmore said referring the incident to the FBI was a “step in the right direction.”
“I think that our community is forever opened up, our eyes are opened up, and it’s going to be forever changed,” Kimberly Gilmore said. “Because with everything that’s taken place, each cop is going to think about that.”
The Gilmores did not attend the Thursday press conference. Their daughter is at home, her parents said, healing from head and facial injuries sustained from the arrest.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.