Police officers, guns, and community collide: How the Charlotte house shooting happened

Rissa Reign and her girlfriend were doing spring cleaning, door open to let the sun in and the dust out, when they heard gunshots.

This being East Charlotte, they didn’t think much of the first burst, or even the second. Lots of people have guns, she said, and maybe someone was showing off.

“And then I heard the third round of shots and I knew something was up,” said Reign, 27.

She thought about a nearby corner store that gets robbed from time to time, and hopped in her car and headed that way. But she didn’t make it that far.

Neighbor Rissa Reign poses for a picture in front of a Charlotte, North Carolina, home destroyed by police after officers serving a warrant on a man inside on April 29, 2024, came under fire, leaving four officers dead.

As she headed out, police cars raced in, swerving onto front lawns as they careened down the street. Reign parked her car and started walking. As a Black woman driving a muscle car, she said, she’s often pulled over, and she didn’t want to risk anything now.

A few streets over, an armed man staged a gun battle Monday against a U.S. Marshals task force that had been sent to arrest him.

Soon, four police officers would be dead. All four – Sam Poloche and Alden Elliott of the state’s Department of Adult Correction, U.S. Marshals Deputy Thomas M. Weeks Jr. and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Joshua Eyer – were married men, and fathers. Four other officers would be wounded in the shooting in the sprawling, tree-lined neighborhood of brick homes.

Flowers were laid on the stairway leading to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, April 30, 2024, the day after three U.S. Marshals and one Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer were killed and four others were injured when gunfire erupted as authorities attempted to serve a warrant in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Dead, too, would be the wanted man, Terry Clark Hughes Jr., whose criminal history showed an escalation from a break-in to drug charges to firearms. It was the sort of progression that some communities have long lamented as an inescapable cycle of violence.

And while the gunfire rocked only one corner of one North Carolina city, its outcome revealed the ways the nation’s complicated dilemmas can collide: American police who see themselves as being too often under fire. American communities who see law enforcement efforts that too often turn deadly. And Americans themselves who encounter the ever-growing presence of guns in daily life.

“We’ve got to recognize it’s not normal to kill four police officers and wound four others,” said Willie Rachford, the longtime director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Department. “We’ve become literally numb to it.”

In the house at the center of the gunfight, investigators would find a .40 caliber pistol and an AR-15-style assault rifle, the same kind of gun at the center of the nation’s gun-rights debate.

Around that scene, authorities and a jarred neighborhood would face a new cycle of questions about whether the effort had made the community more safe, or less.

 

The gunfire

As Reign was ditching her car, Saing Chhoeun was hiding.

Chhoeun, who works as a commercial printer, had just locked his front door and gotten into his truck to go to work when officers swarmed into his driveway, taking cover behind another parked car. They screamed at him to get to safety. Chhoeun bailed out of his truck but forgot his keys in the ignition.

Unable to unlock his house, he found himself stuck outside. He ducked behind the one thing he could see that would give him cover – a freezer in his carport. Then he pulled out his iPhone to begin livestreaming.

Saing Chhoeun, 54, shows how an officer took cover behind a sedan parked in his driveway and fired at the house next door during an incident April 29, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C., where four law enforcement officers, including three on a U.S. Marshals Task Force, were killed and four other officers were injured after being shot while attempting to serve a warrant.

As a siren blared, shot after shot blasted down, scattering pine needles and dirt in a spray of bullets around another officer approaching from behind the house, who dropped to the ground.

Two officers, with tactical vests and assault rifles, dropped beside the wheels of the car in Chhoeun’s driveway, ducking as incoming shots arrived, then craning their necks as they tried to figure out how to return fire.

Chhoeun said he wasn’t afraid. Long ago he came from Cambodia as a refugee, he said, and as a child he saw his own father killed during violence there.

Now, Chhoeun said, he and his buddies go to the shooting range all the time.

“I wasn’t panicked or scared. I was calm,” he said Tuesday, “I was hiding behind a freezer full of meat – wasn’t a bullet coming through that.”

The scene, he thought, was like something out of a movie, an impression that would align with the official police accounting.

As alarmed residents watched, a heavily armed man engaged in a gunfight with police, firing on them from the second-story of a brick house in a tree-lined neighborhood.

Bystanders in Charlotte shot videos as the police shooting played out.

Chhoeun said he watched as one and then another officer was hit by gunfire from the rear of the brick home. He heard their frantic calls for assistance.

“They do what they’ve got to do to get the officer who was shot,” Chhoeun said. “I’ve seen a lot of movies and knew what was coming.”

Finally an armored vehicle arrived, he said, and officers drove it through his side yard and over the chain-link fence separating the two yards to rescue two downed officers.

Other officers shot and killed Hughes on the home’s front lawn. They used the armored vehicle to rip the front of the house open so they could send a drone in to inspect, witnesses said.

Authorities used a battering ram attached to an armored vehicle to tear off the front of a Charlotte, North Carolina, home that was the site of a shooting incident in which four law enforcement officers were killed while attempting to serve a warrant on April 29.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings initially told reporters that it seemed shots were still coming from the house after Hughes was taken down, and that gunfire came from multiple spots. But investigators say they are still trying to determine whether that was the case. At least 12 different officers fired their guns during the incident, authorities said.

Two people – an adult woman and a 17-year-old – were taken from the house for questioning, and have been cooperative, Jennings said Tuesday.

Officials in Charlotte declined to comment on how they assessed the safety risks of an effort to arrest Hughes, who was already wanted for having guns, in a residential area in the middle of the day.

The police on the scene, from both local and federal agencies, were members of a special task force with work that often turns deadly.

The police

Flowers were placed near the doorway to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Their officers were among those killed from a. U.S. Marshals task force.

In a country where gun ownership and gun violence are on the rise, the Marshals Service is on the front lines. U.S. Marshals agents arrest more people wanted on warrants than all other Department of Justice agencies combined, according to a recent report by the U.S. Marshals Service.

A 2021 USA Today-Marshall Project analysis, however, found that about 2/3 of those arrests were actually of people wanted on local warrants, not federal ones. It found that officers on the Marshals’ task forces shot more people, more frequently, than large metro police forces of a similar size – in part because the Marshals Service’s rules on the use of force were looser than those of many police departments.

Nationally, a larger tide of incidents of police brutality in recent years gave rise to the advocacy movement known as “defund the police.” That call, which gained momentum following the murder of George Floyd – a Black man killed by police during an arrest attempt in Minneapolis in May 2020 – focused on shifting resources from policing into mental-health counseling, job creation and incarceration alternatives.

Police advocates countered with “Blue Lives Matter” campaigns and depict the current wave of interactions as a crime wave that targets police.

Law enforcement unions like the Fraternal Order of Police have been the loudest critics of the police protests. They call for tougher penalties against people who commit violence against officers.

“How many officers must be killed before our leaders take decisive action?” the FOP posted on Twitter following the Charlotte shooting. “How much bloodshed is necessary before they declare that enough is enough?”

Central to the violence is the flood of legal and illegal guns in the United States.

Bullet holes on a house at the scene of the April 29, 2024, shooting in Charlotte, N.C., where four law enforcement officers, including three on a U.S. Marshals Task Force, were killed and four other officers were injured Monday after being shot while attempting to serve a warrant.

“Without a doubt – 100% – we’re seeing more violent crimes happen and we’re seeing more guns in people’s hands,” said Mathew Silverman, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. “The Marshals Service goes after the most violent felons in the world.”

“We are in a pivotal point in law enforcement right now,” he said.

But as police confront more guns, and respond in kind, the results can seem eerily cyclical.

To face a better-armed populace, U.S. Marshals agents have upgraded their tactics and training, Silverman said. That includes building more “shoot houses,” simulated homes and businesses where agents learn to subdue and apprehend suspects in close quarters, and more Tactical Training Officers – elite, highly-trained officers – joining groups serving warrants.

Brady McCarron, deputy chief  Public Affairs said the agency would not release any information about the training for the team in Charlotte.

The aftermath

Police said they later recovered a AR-15 type rifle and a .40 caliber pistol from inside the home, with more than 100 rounds fired into or out of the house during the battle.

People stand outside a house that was the scene of an incident on April 29, 2024, where four law enforcement officers, including three on a U.S. Marshals Task Force, were killed and four other officers were injured after being shot while attempting to serve a warrant in Charlotte, N.C.

Hughes’ adult criminal record shows a path through a series of lesser offenses. According to local TV station WCNC, he was convicted of breaking and entering in 2010 and served six months in prison. Later, he was arrested again after attempting to flee police, the news station reported.

His record in Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, shows 2021 charges relating to marijuana possession and eluding arrest. The district attorney there, though, stopped prosecuting many drug crimes in early 2021. As a convicted felon, Hughes was already banned from having a gun.

Warrants for his arrest were outstanding in other counties. It was unclear exactly which warrants led to Monday’s arrest attempt.

In Charlotte, some community leaders are both mourning the officers’ deaths while worrying about the impact the incident will have on minority communities. No members of the city’s law enforcement community spoke at a prayer rally Tuesday night headlined by the city’s mayor, a congresswoman and nearly a dozen civic and religious leaders, many of them from Black churches.

“It’s tense and it’s been tense for a while. And people I’ve talked to worry that this incident will increase the tension, and that any progress we’ve made since 2020 is at risk if we don’t all step up,” said Cameron Pruett, of the Charlotte-based Freedom Center for Social Justice.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles speaks during an interfaith vigil at Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte, April 30, 2024. Local leaders and clergy led prayers of peace and healing after three U.S. Marshals and one Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer were killed in the line of duty April 29.

President Joe Biden has been pushing Congress to reform gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons of the type police say Hughes fired at police, along with a national red flag law and expanded background checks for anyone buying a gun.

“They are heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, rushing into harm’s way to protect us,” President Joe Biden said in a statement about the police in Monday’s shooting. “We mourn for them and their loved ones. And we pray for the recoveries of the courageous officers who were wounded.”

But in East Charlotte, where the sound of gunshots isn’t so unusual, Reign and others simply marveled that more people weren’t injured: “It’s crazy nobody was hurt, bystanders,” she said.

Chhoeun said he’s also thankful none of his neighbors was hit. But he’s mad Hughes didn’t just surrender when the police arrived.

“What he did is wrong,” Chhoeun said. “If he wanted to leave this world, he didn’t (need to) drag other life with him.”