[Story updated at 11:44 a.m.: The suspect in the killings of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C. has been arrested during a traffic stop in Shelby, N.C., Reuters reported.]
An all-out manhunt was underway Thursday morning for a white gunman, identified by the FBI as 21-year-old Dylann Roof of Lexington, S.C., who shot and killed nine people Wednesday night at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C.
City police chief Greg Mullen said the man walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, attended the service for about an hour, and then opened fire, the New York Times reported. The Justice Department has opened a hate crime investigation, drawing attention once more to rising racial tensions in local communities across the nation.
“This is a situation that is unacceptable in any society and especially in our society and our city,” Mullen said at news conference Thursday morning. “We are leaving no stone unturned.”
The incident comes at a time when America’s modern, supposedly post-racial society is being called into question in the wake of violent, sometimes deadly encounters between white police officers and members of black communities. Perceptions of racism persist, with fewer than half of all Americans surveyed saying that the US had made substantial progress toward racial equality since the 1963 civil rights March on Washington, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Although the Mr. Roof's motive is unknown, the incident highlights another side of racism.
Defined by the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990 as “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, gender and gender identity, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity,” hate crimes have fallen by about a quarter over the last two decades, dropping from 7,947 incidents in 1995 to 5,928 in 2013, FBI data shows.
Recent years have also seen a shift away from crimes based on race toward those based on religion and sexual orientation. Yet nearly half of hate crimes in 2013 were still motivated by race – and anti-black or African-American sentiment still drove majority of those crimes, according to the FBI.
“The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice.”
Eight people were killed inside the Charleston church, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. A ninth victim died in an ambulance on the way to Medical University of South Carolina. All the victims were black.
On Thursday morning, authorities began circulating a surveillance photo of a clean-shaven man they suspect is the gunman, who in the image is wearing a white T-shirt, gray sweatshirt, and jeans. Officials have described him as a white male between 21 to 25 years old, about 5 foot 9, wearing a “distinctive sweater with markings,” according to CNN. The FBI later identified the shooter as 21-year-old Dylan Roof. Roof has previously been arrested twice, once for a drug charge, and a second time for trespassing, according to the Charleston Post and Carrier.
Police chief Mullen warned that the man is dangerous and “should not be approached by anyone,” the network reported.
“No one in this community will ever forget this night,” Mullen said. “As a result of this and because of the pain and the hurt this individual has caused this entire community, the law enforcement agents are committed and we will catch this individual.”