In the weeks after the April 4 shooting of Walter L. Scott by a North Charleston police officer, local and state authorities kept tabs on the movements of protest groups, potential cyber-security threats, and even an out-of-state chaplaincy organization, according to city employees’ email records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Ryan Johnson, spokesman for North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, says city officials were especially wary of groups from outside of the city, including the national and international news media, to whom Mayor Summey declined to give one-on-one interviews.
“We feel like the steps made by the city were swift and the correct actions, and the vast majority of the people that live in North Charleston agree,” Johnson says. “That’s why we knew that once the external influences left town (the national media and groups not representative of North Charleston’s residents), a sense of normalcy would return.”
On April 9, an official with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) sent an email to numerous officials in North Charleston and surrounding communities requesting that they send him “all information/intel from any agency regarding gatherings/protests, people coming into town, threats, etc.”
The email filled officials in on several events that were widely reported in the media, including upcoming funerals and protest actions, but also a few that weren’t.
“There are 30-40 people staying in a hotel in Summerville (unknown location at this time) that have come into town from Ferguson,” the SLED official wrote, referring to the Missouri city where the police shooting of Michael Brown inspired civil unrest in 2014.
The SLED official also forwarded along a warning from an FBI agent about the potential for “cyber intrusion crimes” against law enforcement agencies and officers, including Distributed Denial of Service attacks on servers or networks and “doxing” attacks, in which hackers broadcast personal information about a targeted individual. The agent said that the FBI had investigated cyber attacks in Ferguson after the Michael Brown shooting.
According to North Charleston Police Department spokesman Spencer Pryor, NCPD and its officers received no cyber attacks after the shooting.
Tony Reid, a regional disaster officer for the American Red Cross, also sent a “sitrep,” or situational report, to emergency preparedness coordinators in Charleston County and North Charleston that made note of Black Lives Matter protests and meetings, the arrival of protesters from Ferguson, and a public forum on the topic of police body cameras. On April 16, the Red Cross leader announced that the organization would transfer the responsibility of “ongoing monitoring and situational awareness” back to a local chapter, noting, “There is only one local news agency reporting anything on incident, and all but one national media vehicle has left N. Charleston City Hall.”
When asked for comment on the Red Cross’s response in the wake of the Scott shooting, Regional Communications Officer Jennifer Heisler wrote that “the Palmetto SC Region of the American Red Cross mobilized a leadership team, volunteer responders, response equipment/supplies, and maintained situational awareness to ensure we could deliver our humanitarian mission.”
Pryor, speaking for NCPD, says that local law enforcement agencies have received similar advisories in the past, saying, “This is not uncommon and has happened before and after April 4 on different incidents.”
Perhaps the most surprising revelation from the emails is that there was some friction between the local Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team (BGRRT), an international chaplaincy overseen by the legendary evangelist’s son, Franklin Graham.
Rob Dewey, senior chaplain at the nonprofit Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, says he previously worked for a Billy Graham chaplain organization for two years in the late 1970s, and he respects the work they do in communities that do not have a local chaplain program. The problem in the Charleston area, he says, is that Dewey’s organization already has 19 volunteers and two full-time chaplains who are trained to handle local crises, and the BGRRT has “self-deployed” against local officials’ wishes on at least one occasion.
The conflict between the two organizations dates back to 2007, when Dewey says the BGRRT showed up in Charleston uninvited following the Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. He says he spoke with leaders from the national chaplaincy group at the time, told them the local chaplains had things under control, and pleaded with them not to go into the fire stations, but they went in anyway.
“They basically told me that it was public property and they could go where they wanted,” Dewey says. According to Dewey, BGRRT chaplains only left Charleston in 2007 after receiving a stern phone call from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. Dewey says a leader with the group later promised him they would not deploy without an invitation in the future.
Shortly after the Walter Scott shooting this April, the BGRRT sent two chaplains to North Charleston “to assess the situation” following an invitation from the S.C. Fraternal Order of Police, according to Erik Ogren, a spokesman for the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. (The SCFOP has not yet confirmed that it invited the chaplaincy.)
Dewey caught wind of the BGRRT’s plans before they came to town and wrote to city officials on April 9 that the group was “NOT helpful” in 2007.
Johnson, who called the BGRRT “a polarizing group” in an email, says the mayor also did not want the group’s services. “Franklin Graham’s group would have been another story for the national media to latch onto,” Johnson says. “This would have done nothing to help heal North Charleston.”
In the end, the Billy Graham chaplains left town shortly after they arrived, after first paying a visit to City Hall and speaking with Dewey and the mayor. But even before their arrival, Dewey says Summey tried to tell the group to stay away.
“Mayor Summey got a hold of the phone, and at that point he’d been pushed too far on a lot of different things, and he said he didn’t want any outside groups representing anybody coming in here, that we had who we needed — not just from the chaplains, but the radicals on one side or the radicals on the other side,” Dewey says. “That’s one of the things that I think really helped keep things calm.”