The police department in North Carolina's largest city is coming under criticism after a video posted to social media appeared to show officers using chemical agents on demonstrators who were boxed in while protesting the death of George Floyd.
The video was recorded on Tuesday night by Justin LaFrancois, co-founder and publisher of the alternative Charlotte newspaper Queen City Nerve. He said officers fired tear gas and flash-bangs from behind the protesters, and in front of them as well. He also said officers perched on top of buildings were firing pepper balls down on the crowd.
“We were completely trapped,” LaFrancois said. “There was one way to get out, and half of the group did go out that way through the tear gas and through the pepper balls. But for the rest of us, the only route of escape ... was to pull up a gate on the parking structure that we were pressed up against.”
The deployment of chemical agents in Charlotte needs to end tonight.
— Braxton Winston (@BraxtonWinston) June 3, 2020
LaFrancois said people tried to squeeze under the six-inch opening in the gate and find safety. But as those people looked for an exit from the parking deck, he said officers began firing pepper balls after they entered the deck from the other side.
“They were relentless in not allowing us to leave the area that they were trying to get us to leave,” LaFrancois said. “It was the most extreme action that I had seen taken. It was the first time that I was actually in fear for my life.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police issued a statement saying it had asked the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation to look into the situation.
“There is nothing to indicate whatsoever that there was intentional abuse on the part of our officers, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said in the statement. ”In the interest of accountability, I have requested an independent review of the incident by the State Bureau of Investigation to ensure there is an objective set of eyes to determine if CMPD actions were lawful."
Chemical agents can burn eyes and cause coughing and other adverse physical reactions. LeFrancois could be heard on the video was describing the police action before his voice trailed off and he began coughing.
Mayor Vi Lyles said a review of the incident will take time and “we want to get the right information.”
“Last night was one of those times that none of us can be proud of that we wouldn’t want to see happen in our city. But it did,” Lyles said. "And I hope everyone is aware that that’s not the kind of department we want to have for policing. It’s not the kind of reputation that we want to have nationally or locally.”
Charlotte City Council member Matt Newton, whose brother was shot to death in the city in a confrontation with police about 10 years ago, called what happened “totally inappropriate and deeply disturbing. I can’t think of a more volatile and ineffective maneuver,” The Charlotte Observer reported.
Demonstrators had gathered to protest the death of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he pleaded for air.