NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The police chief of a South Carolina city has defended the actions of his officers who are accused of racial bias and excessive force after video of a black man being detained by officers sparked outrage.
In a 21-minute response posted online Wednesday, North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess details three encounters earlier this month with Joshua Lewis.
Burgess said Lewis, 21, was pulled over for a broken tail light May 7, and then had two run-ins with the law May 9, including the controversial incident recorded outside a hotel room.
The video obtained by news outlets appears to show Lewis being placed in handcuffs and then put in what activists call a chokehold and slammed against the wall.
Lewis is the grandson of former Charleston city councilman James Lewis, news outlets reported. The former councilman called the video “disturbing” at a news conference Tuesday alongside civil rights activists.
“When any police chief hires police officers, they take an oath of office to defend and protect... They are not hired to beat citizens like they’re dogs, pick them up off the floor and throw them to the wall,” he said.
Police had responded to a "shots heard" call May 9 when several people were seen running into the hotel, Burgess said. Officers located Lewis's room and discovered him and at least seven other people inside.
Burgess said everyone was asked to exit the room while officers performed a search. Lewis “stiffened up”, according to Burgess, while officers were trying to get the other people out into the hall, leading to his detainment. The other people who were in the room were also handcuffed in the hallway during the search, the chief said.
“Never did any of our officers profile or target Mr. Joshua Lewis,” Burgess said.
Officers smelled an odor of marijuana coming from the room, but no drugs, contraband or illegal weapons were found inside, Burgess said. No arrests were made but the group was asked to leave the hotel.
Officers said they smelled marijuana coming from Lewis's car May 7 when he was pulled over for the broken tail light, Burgess said. A search of the vehicle turned up “shake” — or pieces of marijuana seeds and particles — and some cash. Lewis was ticketed for not having his license on him and allowed to leave the scene.
Lewis was also in a car pulled over shortly after the hotel incident May 9, in which officers discovered a shotgun in the vehicle. No one in the car claimed the firearm, Burgess said. Officers seized the weapon and no arrests were made.
Activists at Tuesday's news conference called for an independent racial bias audit of the police department. Burgess said his department has been working on an internal investigation since it learned of concerns over the detainment May 12.
“We are tasked to do the job that the citizens expect us to do which is to be there to make sure that their lives are safe, and their communities are crime free,” Burgess said. “We are not ever going to turn our heads away from crime.”