Families concerned about police bias at Rock Hill NAACP event

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comFebruary 20, 2014 

— Upset parents and relatives of 16 young men police have labeled as gang members and murderers gathered in Rock Hill on Thursday night, venting rage at a “biased” criminal justice system and police force they say has targeted their children.

Acting as an unofficial spokeswoman for a nascent group of organized mothers searching for answers, Latarsiaoa Hinton – not mother to any of those accused – argued that “the police are more like a gang” before saying she has taken her complaints to Gov. Nikki Haley.

Other parents joined her at an NAACP-led meeting at Freedom Temple Ministries in downtown Rock Hill, upset that police used “heavy-handed” methods when arresting their children. They sought advice from Twana Burris-Alcide, a Rock Hill attorney who addressed the crowd of about 60 on state law, gang laws and the legal process after an arrest is made.

Burris-Alcide said none of the alleged gang members, save one, has been charged under the state’s gang laws, which require authorities to demonstrate a pattern of behavior, she said.

Police have called Antonio Wylie, 20, the leader of 715 FAM, one of two gangs they claim have been feuding and causing a spate of seemingly random drive-by shootings. Arrest warrants say Wylie used threats or violence to order potential 715 members to earn their status in the group by fighting. He has since been released from jail on bond.

“I’m glad my son’s home so he can defend himself and his rap group ... and move on after the Rock Hill Police Department tried to destroy him,” Bonnie Wylie said on Thursday.

“Truly, it’s probably not a gang, but isolated incidents,” Burris-Alcide told the crowd. “If you’re getting together to rap, that’s not criminal activity.”

Last month, members of the police department’s violent crimes unit arrested 13 alleged gang members in a roundup police hoped would put a dent in the city’s gang quarrels. Nine alleged 715 FAM members were arrested and four members of 901 KOB, a newly formed gang, were arrested over a two-day span.

Group members say they are rap artists, not gang members. The roundup came a week after three teens were charged in the shooting death of Michael Giddens on Cedar Grove Lane. Those three homicide suspects, police say, all claimed affiliations with 715 FAM.

Thursday’s gathering was in response to the roundup after Rock Hill NAACP President Melvin Poole said he fielded several concerns from frightened and upset parents who say police broke down their doors with guns drawn and raided their homes in search of their sons.

Police used no-knock warrants during the roundup, which allow officers to enter a house without knocking and announcing their presence if the suspects they plan to deal with might pose a risk to police, Executive Officer Mark Bollinger of the Rock Hill Police Department said before the meeting. In the case of the roundup, information police gathered showed that each of the alleged gang members was known to carry and use guns.

“Each house entry was considered a dangerous situation for law enforcement,” Bollinger said.

Police did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

But, “none of the individuals offered resistance and many of them turned themselves in,” Poole said before the meeting.

Burris-Alcide answered questions about judges and bonds, particularly how Quentin Evans, a Rock Hill man charged in the death of his 1-month-old daughter, could receive a $100,000 bond, while some of the teens arrested in the roundup were assigned bonds up to $665,000.

“It’s not fair,” Hinton said. “Why are they targeting our black kids?”

Burris-Alcide explained that bond setting is subjective, dependent on “who is sitting at the bench at the time.”

Cherika Glover said her 16-year-old son was accused in a carjacking and now faces up to 20 charges, including criminal conspiracy and attempted murder. Police did not call her when they arrested him at a Northwestern High basketball game last month, and she still has not been able to obtain copies of the police reports. From jail, her son was able to mail her copy of his arrest warrants. Behind bars, he wears a bracelet that labels him as a “high-risk” inmate, his mother said.

“Mothers know their children,” Glover said, calling her son’s charges “bogus.” She said he was at Carowinds in October when police accused him of robbing 11 Winthrop University students.

“The justice system is not always fair,” Glover said.

Responding to claims that police have threatened and intimidated teens in the community, Burris-Alcide said, “I think some of (the officers) are untrained, lacking skill; those are the conversations we need to have with the chief of police.” She said she believes “racial profiling takes place,” but added that the real divide between police and the community is the lack of communication.

Community leaders commended parents for gathering, but encouraged them to be vigilant about organizing when there aren’t any immediate problems. They also urged parents to know what their children are doing after school.

“Parents, it’s OK to be parents,” said the Rev. Demorrious Robinson, pastor of New Life Church in Chester.

“We can’t be friends, we can’t be chums, we can’t be buds,” said Mac McGee, a gang counselor with TLC Ministries’ Project Shift, Change and Believe. “We’ve got to be parents.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082