By the sixth day of protests that began in Greenville on May 30 in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, command staff of the Greenville Police Department complained about back-to-back demonstrations.
One police captain wrote “JUST STOP!!!!!” in response to interim Chief Howie Thompson’s email informing officers of more planned protests. Other top command staff suggested law enforcement should be able to limit residents to one protest a week.
The events at the beginning of June included a unity rally led by Relentless Church, a prayer rally at a Kroc Center soccer field, a memorial for Floyd at Falls Park and a racial injustice event led by Upstate Peacekeepers at Graham Plaza.
“We should at least be able to make them combine their events to one per week if the topic is the same,” Capt. Michael Yearout wrote to the command staff in reply to Capt. Chi M. Blair’s “JUST STOP!!!!!” email.
“I have to back Chi up on this…,” read another email from Capt. Patricia Mullinax, who oversees the professional standards division.
The communications were included in nearly 1,000 pages of departmental emails, memos and after-action reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Greenville News. The documents detail the level of police response and internal communication among officers amid days of protests downtown.
The city of Greenville spent more than $160,000 in overtime expenses to cover the costs of staffing protests with extra officers and equipment, according to the city. Some of the demonstrations were more tumultuous than others — one canister of tear gas was used on a crowd of about 50 people at the conclusion of a May 31 protest — though city leaders still say Greenville had fewer injuries, arrests and damages than other U.S. cities during the unrest over police reform that was sparked by Floyd’s death.
More: What made Greenville different than Columbia and Charleston in George Floyd protests?
Thompson told The Greenville News this week that some of the emails exchanged among command staff and the tone of the comments did not surprise him given the intense stress many officers were under in dealing with back-to-back events while also still tending to regular duties throughout the city.
“I think what you saw probably was a normal email back and forth you would see at any company that had events going on,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to even tell you how stressful and how much of a burden it is on the officers.”
During the first days of protests, the police department also received 12 feedback letters from residents — about half supporting officers’ efforts to quell unrest and half urging the department to limit their use of force and have better accountability.
“All the officers on Sunday were absolutely amazing, nice, did not look threatening in any way. Good job. Please pass it on. I work downtown and am so proud of the job,” one of the letters said. The writer wrote that she took her 14-year-old daughter to the protest.
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“We deserve an explanation for the escalation that was started and carried out only by police during last night’s peaceful protest. We deserve to know why you thought concussion grenades and tear gas was an appropriate response. The display I saw last night was absolutely disgusting, and completely opposite to what you had been telling the protesters just hours before,” wrote another resident.
Out of the 985 pages of emails obtained from the Greenville Police Department, 585 were entirely redacted. Others were partially redacted. Many of the redacted pages came from emails that referred to an incident action plan in the subject line. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act allows law enforcement agencies to withhold documents that detail certain law enforcement procedures and tactics.
Thompson described a “volatile situation” unfolding across the U.S. and the unpredictability of scheduled protests, which led to additional stress and concerns among Greenville police as they geared up to face the public in the early days of protests.
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“To hear some of the words, the foul language and the focus on police and yelling in their face, you would have thought something had happened here in Greenville. We are actually here to help the protesters and protect them and allow them to do with they did. We had several days in a row of this and we were getting this treatment and haven’t done anything wrong.”
Several emails show a YouTube video link being shared to several city employees and officers that include clips of police confrontations with protesters and arrests. Many of the emails include comments in support of what’s seen in the video.
One officer, Nathan Smith, sent the link to another officer to inform her that the video includes a clip showing the arrest of one of their friends.
“Yea I saw that and I was going to send it to you too lol,” wrote Officer Ashley Munoz.
Other emails were focused more on preparing officers and telling them what sort of gear they needed to bring to the job if they were assigned to handle the protests.
“Go ahead and start mentally preparing,” wrote Lt. Michael Austin after another picketing notice was filed with the city from Upstate Peacekeepers.
‘Successful in defending our city’
Lt. Jason Semanyk wrote to a team of officers around 11 p.m. Saturday after one night of protesting in preparation for another event planned for Sunday.
“I’d also like to thank all of you who came today. I know it’s frustrating and not very rewarding but it obviously needs to be done,” he wrote. “We were successful in defending our city and keeping people and property safe.”
One police leader wrote to a team of officers to warn them that many officers do not have proper privacy settings set up on their social media accounts. Sgt. Andrew Hamilton mentioned how officers emails and passwords of the Minneapolis Police Department were “doxed,” meaning officers’ personal identifying information was researched and retrieved.
Hamilton told staff that protesters in Greenville taunted and threatened officers.
“During our protest over this past weekend protesters were taunting officers stating ‘We are recording your names and badge numbers. We will find your social media and tell your family/friends that you are murders. We will ruin your lives,’ ” Hamilton wrote in the email. “After a quick search of my officers, I was amazed at how many of them had NO privacy settings on their social media accounts.”
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He shared online resources for how people can ensure their personal social media pages remain private.
Another batch of emails inquire about specific arrests of protesters from several nights of events. Some emails are from Greenville County Schools administrators inquiring about the arrest of a Mauldin High School science teacher. Kate Barber, 36, of Simpsonville was one of 16 people arrested between May 30 and May 31. She was issued an interfering with police citation.
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“Can you get me the incident report on this gal. Seems y’all got her during
the protest. She teaches at Mauldin,” Kent Owens, the school district’s director of student personnel services, wrote to Sgt. Kevin Cox with the police department’s central support division.
Greenville County Schools declined to say whether the teacher was disciplined internally based on her police citation.
“This personnel matter was handled internally,” said district spokesman Tim Waller.
City police nearly prevented Relentless Church from holding unity rally
When police were notified that Relentless Church had filed an intent to picket on June 3 in downtown Greenville, Capt. Patricia Mullinax wrote in an internal email a one word reply: “Denied.”
Minutes later, the chief’s administrative assistant reminded staff that the event organizer, the Rev. John Gray, had recently interacted positively with the police force.
“Remember, this is the pastor from Redemption Church you just sent a thank you for the doughnuts,” Angela Limbaugh wrote back.
Anne Marcinko, another staff member, wrote: “That seems like awfully short turn around time….I think the website says 5 days for a group that large” and public information administrator MJ Simpson replied, “I know. I think they are ignoring that. Not really sure.”
Chief Thompson later wrote back to confirm that the event will go on: “Yes that is 10-4 should be a low key gathering.”
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The intent to picket form submitted by Pastor Aventer Gray, John Gray’s wife, listed an estimate of 500 attendees. The city’s picketing ordinance states a minimum of seven days advance notice should be required for any group sizes larger than 400 people.
The event was ultimately held and additional emails show command staff detailing event plans and how to properly staff the event and ensure safety.
Discussions about the event’s safety took place during the department’s executive staff meeting June 2, the day before the rally. The discussion included “concerns on what will happen once the event is over” and having “a team to go into the group if someone needs to be pulled out.”
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Thompson told The News that the department has strived to give all residents a voice and promote first amendment rights while ensuring safety.
“We want these events to stay safe. We understand, the first amendment is the first amendment for a reason. It’s important,” Thompson said. “Our job as police is to grant that freedom of speech in a peaceful manner.”
After-action reports detail level of force used downtown including tear gas
During the May 31 protest, where 12 people were arrested, pepper spray, smoke, loud warning noises and eventually tear gas were all a part of the tactics used to control crowds and disperse people.
An after-action report within the emails obtained through records requests detail the level of force and tactics used by Greenville police officers:
- An LRAD was used first before other tactics. LRAD stands for Long Range Acoustic Device that sends messages and warning tones to crowds at a high volume.
- A “Mark 9” spray was then used on protesters to help pull back the officers on bicycles and create a distance. Per the manufacturer’s website, the spray “utilizes a 10% Oleoresin Capsicum pepper formula that irritates nerve endings near the skin’s surface, causing burning pain on contact.
- Smoke was then deployed on the crowd but was rendered “ineffective,” according to the department’s report.
- Next, a flashbang was used at Washington Street and Main Street and the crowd began moving south.
- But by the time the crowd was at Main and McBee streets, people began moving back toward officers, so OC spray, also known as pepper spray, was used to keep crowds back.
- Police then formed a line at East Court Street but when the crowd approached the line, a flash bang and pepperball were used to disperse them. A pepperball, also known as a pepper bomb, is a projectile that contains chemicals that irritate the eyes and nose.
- The crowds continued pushing so deputies from the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office deployed OC vapor, also known as pepper spray, and Greenville police deployed “CS,” commonly referred to as tear gas. According to an article referenced by the National Institute of Health, CS is widely used as an incapacitating spray that causes intense burning of the eyelids, the flow of tears and burning sensations in the throat and nose. The article says, “questions have been raised about its safety.”
- After CS was used, crowds began to disperse.
- Damages discovered from protests include an ATM that was spray-painted and a trash can that was nearly set on fire at Falls Park Drive and Main Street.
Thompson said the tear gas used involved one canister on a crowd of about 50 people in an open-air area only after other prior tactics were unsuccessful in dispersing the crowd. The tear gas, he said, was successful.
“That was after everything else we tried did not work,” he said. “Our police department was very professional and officers showed great restraint. It’s a hard time for everybody. It’s highly volatile.”
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @danieljgross.
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