Raleigh Police Shootings 2008—Present
Akiel Denkins was the seventh civilian shot by Raleigh police since 2008. Of the remaining six, five were African-American, while one was white. In addition, in May 2014, Sergeant J.D. Malzahn accidentally shot Officer K.J. Barefoot while attempting to take a suspect into custody. The six accounts below are taken from public records.
April 4, 2008: Michael Lewis White was fleeing police on foot in Southeast Raleigh. Officer B. Greenwood and other witnesses saw a weapon. Greenwood shot White twice; White survived.
August 5, 2008: Renford Butler, who was from Durham, carjacked a vehicle near N.C. State. He slashed at an officer with a straight razor and then came for Officer J. Bloodworth, who shot him twice. Butler died a week later.
September 30, 2009: Justin Lamar Thomas fired a shot outside of a police station and then barricaded himself inside an N.C. State building. He pointed two handguns at the police; three officers shot at him. He was hit once but recovered.
October 21, 2010: Emmerli Wilcoxson ran toward Officer D.C. Painter, who said Wilcoxson reached toward her ankle “as if she were retrieving something.” Painter shot her multiple times. Then Wilcoxson ran toward Officer P.D. Matthews, who shot her once. She survived; later she attempted to sue the city but lost.
November 23, 2012: Matthew Durwood Calton, a murder suspect, shot Officer M.M. Harmon. Harmon and Officer D.B. Moreland returned fire, striking Carlton, who survived.
December 17, 2014: Marcel Jordan, who has schizophrenia, assaulted an employee at the Family Preservation Services center on Barrett Road. When he advanced toward officers with a pair of scissors, Officer S.C. Nziuki shot and critically wounded him. —Paul Blest
Here’s what we know: shortly before noon on Monday, February 29, while attempting to serve a felony drug warrant, white Raleigh police officer Daniel Clay Twiddy shot and killed a twenty-four-year-old African-American man named Akiel Denkins near the corner of Bragg and East streets in Southeast Raleigh.
Beyond that, the details are hazy.
Many community members—most hearing the story second-, third-, or even fourthhand—say it went something like this: Twiddy chased Denkins; Denkins hopped a fence; Twiddy tried to hop that fence but fell down; onlookers started laughing at Twiddy; then, as one witness told The News & Observer, Twiddy “pulled his gun out and started shooting. [Denkins] got shot in the back.”
Twiddy’s version is quite different. In his telling, as reported in the preliminary “five-day report” the Raleigh Police Department presented to the city manager last week, Twiddy—a former high school wrestler and CrossFit enthusiast—caught up to the fleeing Denkins. They wrestled. “As the struggle continued, Officer Twiddy observed Mr. Denkins start to pull a handgun from the front of his waistband and begin to move it toward Officer Twiddy,” the report says.
So Twiddy pulled out his gun and fired “multiple” shots, the report says. “After the first shots were fired, Officer Twiddy felt Mr. Denkins’ hand or arm make contact with his duty weapon. Officer Twiddy, fearing that Mr. Denkins was either going to shoot him or attempt to take his duty weapon, stepped back and fired additional shots at Mr. Denkins,” the report continues, “who still had the firearm in his hand. Mr. Denkins collapsed to the ground, dropping the firearm in the process.”
A preliminary autopsy found that Denkins was shot four times.
“We were sitting outside, having a nice day,” recalls neighbor Brenda Jackson. “The next thing I know, I hear bam! bam! bam! And I said, ‘Oh Lord, I’m going in the house.’”
Gunshots aren’t unusual in this section of Southeast Raleigh, a generally friendly but often underserved neighborhood where some houses sit in disrepair. Nor is it unusual to see a heavy police presence—usually white cops patrolling an almost entirely black neighborhood—to combat drug trafficking, the scourge of a community full of young people with little opportunity.
But drug dealers aren’t the cops’ only targets, people who live on Bragg Street say.
“They ride up and down this strip, they see what’s going on, and all they want to do is harass people—not only drug dealers, but innocent people,” says resident Al Hall. “And they expect people to respect them for that. Nobody’s going to respect someone for taking an old man who can’t even walk, and because he’s drinking a little bit, let’s go and rough him up. Nobody’s going to respect that.”
So it’s no surprise that, in the wake of Denkins’s death, many residents don’t believe the developing official narrative. They also don’t believe Twiddy will be indicted or otherwise held accountable. Instead, they see this incident as of a piece with the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland—cases where young black lives were snuffed out by the police.
“Even if [Denkins] ran or had drugs on him, you didn’t have to do all that to the man,” says neighbor Willie Alston. “The police could be a whole lot better than what they are, really.”
“I have a seven-year old grandson that I see every day,” adds Geraldine Alshamy, a member of the Police Accountability Community Taskforce (PACT), a volunteer group that formed last year. “He always asks me, ‘GiGi, will the police shoot me?’”
Justified or not, that distrust, and all the issues underlying it, is something the city will have to grapple with in the weeks and months—and years and decades—to come.
“When you have an issue like this, if you have alienated and excluded people and didn’t respect their culture, when you get a crisis, that comes back,” says Octavia Rainey, a longtime Raleigh activist. “It is all about creating trust. [City officials] are so caught up in change that they forgot about trust. Trust will always give you the benefit of the doubt, and [the police] need the benefit of the doubt right now.”
“It’s Mainly White Cops”
After the police tape was taken down and Denkins’s body moved last Monday afternoon, a crowd gathered at the scene. Some were angry, but most were just devastated by the loss of a young father of two they knew as having a good heart—”a sweet person, never cursed, good manners,” as resident Anissa McNair recalls—who got into the drug game only to provide for his family.
This wasn’t Denkins’s first run-in with the law. He had a lengthy criminal record dating back to March 2011. Court records show that Denkins was arrested more than thirty times in five years and charged with misdemeanors and felonies ranging from marijuana and cocaine possession to illegally carrying a gun to assault on a female. In that time, Denkins racked up at least three convictions.
But the people who knew him well remember Denkins for his warm smile, his love of basketball, and his optimism. Denkins played in the basketball league at the nonprofit outreach center Neighbor to Neighbor. He wanted to work in construction, says Royce Hathcock, who works at the center.
“He was a wonderful, warm personality. He had this grin that people always talked about that was feisty and fun, and he was just a deep person,” Hathcock says.
By nightfall, that crowd had given way to a vigil, hundreds strong, marching from the scene of the shooting a few blocks to the Bible Way Temple, chanting “Black lives matter!” One person held up a sign that read, “Fuck the Police.”
Despite the palpable tension, the Monday night protest was peaceful. There have been no riots or looting.
As North Carolina NAACP chairman Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II implored the community the day after the shooting, “This is not time to turn on each other. It’s a time to turn to each other.”
But that doesn’t mean they trust the police’s story.
“Witnesses have come forward to indicate that when the scene was blocked off,” NAACP lawyer and N.C. Central law professor Irv Joyner told the media Thursday, “that there was a ‘cleaning up’ of the shooting site. That’s part of the anger that people have, that they were blocked out while there was a cleaning up of blood, a reshuffling of leaves and other terrain around the shooting scene. That’s where that concern comes from.”
Indeed, many residents are skeptical that the city will conduct the thorough investigation they’re demanding. “It’s going to be a justified shooting,” says Darren Lockett. “The cops are going to fix it up some type of way.”
That sentiment pervades the neighborhood.
Part of the problem is that not enough cops look like the neighborhood’s—or the city’s—residents. As a December N&O story reported, while people of color comprise about 40 percent of Raleigh’s population, they only make up 16 percent of the police force. At the time, Raleigh police chief Cassandra Deck-Brown—the first African-American woman to hold that position—vowed to change that.
“When there’s a shooting or something happens like that, that’s when you see black police officers,” says Southeast Raleigh resident Ashley Murphy. “When they’re patrolling, it’s mainly white cops.”
Related to that, neighbors say, is what they describe as a pattern of harassment. For example, take this story, told by Kimberly Muktarian, the president of local group Saving Our Sons.
One day in August 2014, Muktarian’s son was pulled over by Raleigh cops, who claimed to smell a “strong marijuana odor,” according to court records.
“They searched and patted them down and then sat them down on the curb,” Muktarian says. “I teach in a prison, and I’m always educating my children on their rights, and my son begins to talk very educational to them, saying that they exhausted their probable cause.
“That makes them mad,” she continues. “And when he adjusted the way he was sitting because he was on the ground for so long, they took him and slammed him into the ground, and two or three white cops just pounded on him and sat on him. My cousin said that all you could see was the tears rolling down my son’s face, because he couldn’t move.”
No marijuana was found, according to court records, but the police charged him with “attempting to flee on foot after being removed from a vehicle.” In order to avoid the possibility of jail time and losing his job if he lost, her son pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge.
Others report having similar experiences.
“You can’t even stand on certain streets without being harassed,” says a resident who asked not to be named. “I could be standing here talking to someone, and a police officer will pull over and search me for drugs. I don’t sell drugs, man. I go to work just like a normal person would.”
It’s not just in this neighborhood that African-Americans are more likely to be searched. University of North Carolina professor Frank Baumgartner tracked traffic stops and searches in major North Carolina cities from 2002–13. During that period, he found that African-American drivers in Raleigh are 62 percent more likely to be searched at a stop than white drivers.
As Baumgartner points out, that percentage approaches the disparity seen in Ferguson, a city that the U.S. Department of Justice sued last month for “routinely” violating its citizens’ civil rights.
But anger here in Southeast Raleigh isn’t just directed toward the police. There’s also frustration at city officials who many community members feel have had a remarkably inadequate response to Denkins’s death.
“Where’s Corey Branch At?”
Coincidentally, the Raleigh City Council had a presentation on body cameras scheduled for its work session last Monday. As news of the shooting broke, the council abruptly ended its meeting. The next day, Mayor Nancy McFarlane made brief remarks asking for “calm, patience, and prayers” from the lobby of City Hall.
“Any loss of life, regardless of circumstance, is heartbreaking, and we offer our sincere condolences to all of those involved,” she said. “We understand the need and desire of the community for information to be able to make sense of yesterday’s events.”
After that, she was quiet on the subject for almost a week. McFarlane and first-term council member Corey Branch, whose district covers Southeast Raleigh and who is the council’s only African-American, declined multiple interview requests.
“I have a seven-year-old grandson that I see every day. He always asks me, ‘Gigi, will the police shoot me?’”
On Monday, however, McFarlane dedicated much of her State of the City address Monday to praising the community’s reaction to the shooting.
“One week ago, she said, “we faced a tragedy as a community. Many lives were changed. And our community is changed. What I do know is no matter what you are thinking or feeling about this situation, we have to use the strength of those emotions to focus on making our community better. For us to come together as a community and move forward, I really believe the key is to really, really listen to each other.”
Though McFarlane attended Denkins’s funeral at the Bible Way Temple on Friday, she didn’t show for the vigils earlier in the week, which irked some residents. Sources tell the INDY that an assistant city manager reached out to them after the shooting, telling them that the mayor was worried her presence at the vigils would infuriate residents. These sources say the opposite is true.
“People by and large feel like they are thrown away and uncared for, and they need someone in power to make sure they know that’s not the case,” one source says.
Branch’s absence didn’t go unnoticed, either. “Where’s Corey Branch at?” one man exasperatedly asked a group of reporters outside of the Bible Way Temple on Tuesday. “The people here elected him, we put him [on the city council]. Where is he?”
While community leaders did what they could to keep people calm, there’s a feeling among Southeast Raleigh residents that their elected officials should have been there. “We did not elect [NAACP leader Barber], who is not from Raleigh, to come here and calm us down,” the source continues.
It’s long been clear that the city needs to do better by Southeast Raleigh. The question that no one has been able to answer is how.
Wake County commission chairman James West, one of that board’s two African-Americans, says he hopes this tragedy will serve as a wake-up call to elected officials, putting them on notice that they must pay closer attention to these communities.
“It reminds us of a lot of the challenges and things that need to be done in the community related to prosperity and hope, that there are issues with jobs and with poverty that have to be addressed,” he says. “I hope we can form a grassroots community to try to make sure we can provide the opportunities that we all can enjoy, for all citizens of Raleigh and Wake County to be a part of the American dream.”
“There Needs to be More Trust”
On Thursday, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman released the preliminary results of an autopsy. It found that Denkins had been shot four times—once in the chest, injuring his heart and lungs, once in the shoulder, and once in each arm—though it’s not yet clear from which direction or the range from which he was hit.
Freeman told reporters that a medical examiner had more work to do before making those determinations. There’s also a possibility that the Denkins family will request an independent autopsy.
Speaking with the INDY on Friday, Joyner, the NAACP attorney, offered suggestions for ways the police could improve their relationship with the community.
“I don’t know if an incident like this can be prevented from happening again,” Joyner said. “But I do know that there needs to be better interaction between police and the community. There needs to be more trust. There’s a lot of anger in this community that did not originate with the death of Akiel. It was something that goes back for years. Chief Brown has done a lot to address that, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
Specifically, Deck-Brown, who took over the RPD in 2013, has made an active effort to increase diversity.
“Better training could avoid this situation, as well as the community having more power over this process,” adds PACT member Erin Byrd. “A lot of times [officers] get off, and the community doesn’t have any power in this conversation.”
PACT has proposed several policy changes, including employing body cameras, establishing a community oversight board with the ability to investigate and subpoena the police, providing written search-consent forms, and creating an internship program to recruit officers of color.
“While the department won’t comment on the positions taken by any particular group,” RPD spokesman Jim Sughrue told the INDY in an email, “I will note that it has a longstanding record of listening to and learning from community members and community organizations.”
On March 10, PACT members will make their case for greater police accountability to the city’s Human Relations Commission—a meeting scheduled before Denkins’s death but now given new urgency.
“We want them to know that we’re here and what our proposals are,” Alshamy says. “The police chief said over and over again that she wants to build relationships in the community, but there was such a lack of trust to begin with, and now there’s even more of a lack of trust in the community.”
The Body-Cam Debate
If Officer Twiddy had been wearing a body camera, as officers do in at least twenty-eight* other North Carolina police agencies—soon to be twenty-nine, if Durham adopts a policy it has been debating over the last several months—it’s likely the confusion and anxiety over what actually happened last Monday could have been avoided altogether.
Raleigh is taking steps in that direction. Notes from the presentation that was to go before the city council last week indicate that city staff expected body cameras to increase accountability, public trust, efficiency in investigating complaints, and quality of evidence collection, while reducing civilian complaints, officer and civilian injuries, and officers’ use of force.
That, in the staff’s view, would be well worth the $4 million to $5 million body cameras would cost the city over the next five years.
There’s nothing in the presentation that touches on one of the most crucial aspects of body-cam policy: under what circumstances the public gets to see the footage. That’s been the holdup in Durham, where the police want tighter controls on the videos’ release than some city council members are willing to enact. So it remains to be seen how transparent Raleigh’s eventual policy will be.
The city council plans to discuss body cameras at its March 15 meeting.
*Correction: the original story understated the number of North Carolina police agencies that use body cameras. While Raleigh’s presentation listed eleven cities that do so, the state ACLU says there are at least twenty-eight using body cams and another five—including Durham, Chapel Hill, and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office—that are either considering or testing them.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Four Shots on Bragg Street”