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Salisbury Police to make policy changes following Thelma’s restaurant shooting

By Shavonne Potts

shavonne.potts@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Salisbury Police Department says it will make several policy changes after a review of a January mass shooting at the former Thelma’s Down Home Cooking restaurant.

In a news conference streamed online, Police Chief Jerry Stokes shared an internal review about what occurred before the shooting, the department’s response and plans the agency has going forward. In the nearly one-hour conference, which is available via the department’s Facebook page, Stokes provided an overview of the events prior to the private party that was held at the now-closed restaurant, which was located in the West End Plaza.

Stokes said the party host, Dhestini Sturdivant, requested and hired an off-duty Salisbury police officer to be on the property for the party. He said it was by coincidence that police saw social media posts about the party at the restaurant. Only 100 people were to attend the January party. A similar party was held there in August and it ended with a fight in the parking lot.

Because of the August fight, police warned the restaurant owner, Thelma Luckey, against holding the second after-hours party. An agent with the Alcohol Law Enforcement Division also warned Luckey against holding the party because of the apparent involvement of alcohol at the August party.

An Alcohol Law Enforcement agent and two police officers were in the area to monitor the activity at January party and other areas that night, Stokes said.

But Stokes said police could not predict that violence would occur at the January party. Six people were shot and two people were trampled while trying to flee the restaurant and one person was treated for anxiety-related issues.

No ABC permit was issued for the party and Luckey has since been issued a citation and fined.

Just prior to midnight, the off-duty police officer was called to intercede in a dispute in which five males tried to enter the building and initially were refused by Luckey. The off-duty officer called for an on-duty officer to respond to assist due to how heated the disagreement became. Prior to the arrival of on-duty officers, the dispute was resolved by Luckey, who allowed the males into the venue, Stokes said.

Officers and the ALE agent were still on the scene when shots were heard coming from inside the restaurant, Stokes said. Police tried to get inside as a mass of party-goers tried to leave the building. Police found one male on the floor bleeding profusely. He was taken to the hospital in a police cruiser before emergency medical services arrived.

Police broke a side door to gain another entry into the restaurant. Party-goers broke a glass door that led out of the former mall.

The police department’s policy changes, Stokes said, should include getting equipment that includes trauma kits, weapon-mounted lights, a “go-bag” to carry trauma kits and extra ammunition.

Some equipment needs are currently not funded in the city’s budget, and the department is looking into obtaining grants to cover the cost.

Stokes said the department will increase active violence response training, too.

Stokes also provided findings from an after-action review that included what officers did well and what they could improve upon. Some of the things officers did well recognized that the event was a potentially credible threat to public safety because of the previous party.

Stokes said the after-action review noted the following could have been done better pre-event:

• No report was completed for the Aug. 23 incident. So, detailed information was not readily available in police records.

• There is no current intelligence-gathering function within the department to look for similar types of events — those that present a public safety concern — or to identify individuals or groups of individuals to anticipate, prevent, or monitor possible criminal activity.

• Command staff were present in briefings regarding the potential threat but did not become involved in any response planning.

• No information about the event was communicated outside of the Salisbury Police Department to other law enforcement, fire, EMS or other entities that could have had a “need to know.”

Stokes said the after-action review noted the following was done well by the department during the event:

• Officers made an immediate entry, which likely limited the number of shots that were fired.

• Officers were controlled in their use of force (none was applied) in an overly crowded area. Stokes said any shots inside could have struck an unintended person.

•  Calling in fire and EMS to the scene was done well.

• A victim was identified as needing immediate care and there was no delay getting that person to the emergency room for treatment.

“This action likely saved his life,” Stokes said.

• Officers did not stop once they cleared the restaurant building and continued to search for any victims or suspects in the immediate area.

Stokes’ after-action review noted the following could have been done better:

• Officers had insufficient first aid kits. They are issued tourniquets and typical “band-aid” type kits, but the victim taken to the hospital was not injured in a manner a tourniquet would have helped.

The officers had no compression type bandages or other bleeding control products to use normally found in a military trauma-style kit.

• Relatively young and inexperienced officers on the force found themselves not as prepared as they felt they should be. Stokes said an officer commented, “Basic Law Enforcement Training never prepared me for this.” The officers felt they need more training in response to active threat situations.

• The media information flow was limited even after a number of concerns were known from the public, and several days passed before there was a press conference to clarify and provide details that could have helped alleviate the public’s concern.

To view the complete review and action plan, visit salisburync.gov and under the government tab, click communications and newsroom.

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