“What I am most proud of is the transparency,” Police Chief Kerr Putney said Friday. “I don’t know if people are aware of how open we are.” Troy Hull Troy Hull
“What I am most proud of is the transparency,” Police Chief Kerr Putney said Friday. “I don’t know if people are aware of how open we are.” Troy Hull Troy Hull

Local

Chief says CMPD has changed. Critics say reforms didn’t happen.

By Fred Clasen-Kelly, Steve Harrison And Jane Wester

frkelly@charlotteobserver.com

September 16, 2017 09:51 AM

Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories that look at the promises city leaders made in the wake of last year’s unrest.

When violence erupted after the 2016 fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney and the City Council promised change.

They vowed to take steps to ease tension between officers and residents in minority neighborhoods. The city hired a consultant to review the police department, reviewed best practices from the Obama administration and listened to concerns from community groups.

A year later, activists and some public officials complain that plans for major reforms have stalled or never started.

Be the first to know.

No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.

CMPD officers, meanwhile, have killed three people this year. The circumstances differed in each case, but they often led to the same complaints as the Scott shooting – about how often officers use deadly force against minorities and whether they are equipped to deal with people with mental disabilities.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, said she is frustrated. “My fear is the city isn’t taking this serious enough.”

City officials say change is already underway.

City Council members said CMPD has conducted an extensive community outreach program to improve relations with residents. Officers have attended neighborhood meetings and hosted teens at the YMCA.

In an interview Friday, Putney said his department has promoted transparency by posting information about police shootings and traffic stops on its website. CMPD has urged the release of video footage from officer shootings once cases are closed, a break from past practice, he said.

The department also is expanding the use of body-worn cameras to all officers except those working undercover, Putney said. Commanders have turned over data such as arrests, traffic stops, dispatches and discipline to researchers from the University of Chicago to help predict and prevent officer misconduct.

“We are making a lot of headway,” Putney said. “What I am most proud of is the transparency. I don’t know if people are aware of how open we are.”

The Scott shooting became part of a national debate about the killings of African Americans by police. Putney said his department is confronting the topic at community meetings and in conversations with residents.

“We’re challenging stereotypes and having conversations about police and race,” Putney said.

What hasn’t happened

In a letter to the community, city council members said they understood the frustration that surfaced after the Scott shooting, and would take steps to rebuild community trust.

“We ask that you hold us accountable,” they wrote.

Critics, however, point to the fact that the city has failed to deliver on the most far-reaching changes championed by Mayor Jennifer Roberts, city council and civil rights groups.

▪ The Police Foundation, which the City Council agreed to pay nearly $400,000, was supposed to review CMPD policies and procedures and make recommendations for reforms in about six months. After seven months, the consultant group has not released any findings.

Julie Eiselt, head of the City Council’s public safety committee, said she has asked why the report isn’t done, but has received no explanation.

▪ In a letter to the community in October, City Council said CMPD would enact recommendations from a presidential task force. The group’s recommendations urge law enforcement agencies to mandate independent investigations into police shootings and strengthen civilian oversight.

But CMPD remains the only police department in North Carolina that routinely conducts its own probes into all officer shootings. Other departments request the State Bureau of Investigation look into all fatal shootings.

Putney said the department’s practice will not change. He said his department’s investigations are at “a higher level” than what outside agencies such as the SBI provide.

▪  City Council members failed to persuade state lawmakers to give Charlotte’s Civilian Review Board subpoena power to investigate CMPD’s handling of police misconduct cases.

North Carolina’s General Assembly would need to pass legislation to grant the Review Board the authority to compel witnesses to testify.

Critics: Review too limited

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray and CMPD both determined that Officer Brentley Vinson’s shooting of Scott was justified. Scott stepped out of an SUV with a gun in his hand and ignored commands from five officers on the scene to drop it, authorities said.

But protest groups and some law enforcement experts harshly criticized CMPD for resorting to deadly force. An attorney for Scott’s family said he suffered from a traumatic brain injury and likely did not understand the officers’ commands.

The Sept. 20 shooting unleashed two nights of vigils, street violence and several more days of protests, leading to dozens of arrests. Then-Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency.

In November, the City Council voted to pay the Police Foundation $379,500 for a review that many hoped would be wide-ranging and include how the department approached potentially deadly encounters.

Eiselt supported Putney’s recommendation to hire the Police Foundation, which at the time she said would conduct an “independent outside review of CMPD policies and procedures, as well as its relationship with the community will be assessed.”

In reality, the outside review will focus on how police responded to street protests in the aftermath of the shooting, and not the Scott shooting itself.

The city’s agenda item said that the foundation would develop a community advisory board and seek community dialogue and input. It also would conduct a “critical incident review of CMPD’s response to protests and demonstration.”

There was no mention of the foundation reviewing whether officers could have handled the Scott confrontation differently, or a review of the department’s policies and procedures.

After the meeting, an Observer reporter asked then-Assistant City Manager Ann Wall whether the foundation would review the shooting and whether the department handled the confrontation in the best way. Wall said it would not.

The Observer published a story that week stating the review would only focus on the protests and not the shooting.

But months later, many council members are surprised by the review’s focus on the protests.

Council members Ed Driggs, Kenny Smith and Eiselt told the Observer when they voted they had believed the Police Foundation would look into the shooting.

Eiselt said any assessment that does not include officers confrontation with Scott leaves an important question unanswered.

“I don’t know why” the consultant would not look into those issues after the Scott shooting, Eiselt said. “That’s a big question.”

Driggs said he believed the Police Foundation would take a broad look into CMPD practices, including what led to the Scott shooting.

“I was listening carefully because this investment was large,” Driggs said. “I wanted to make sure this just wasn’t some empty gesture.”

In Charlotte’s form of government, the city manager and other staff members write contracts and negotiate the scope of work with consultants.

The elected officials vote on whether to approve the contracts. Though council members did not write the Police Foundation contract, there is no public record of any of them questioning why the foundation’s work would not be broader in scope, as many say today it should have been.

Investigating themselves

In 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a report detailing best practices to improve trust in police officers.

The report says that law enforcement agencies should require an external, independent investigation after police shootings.

But in the Scott case, no independent investigative agency was on the scene until two days after the shooting. CMPD interviewed the officers who were involved and gathered evidence. The SBI did not become involved until Scott’s family members requested an independent investigation.

Most police shootings in Charlotte are not independently investigated. In recent years, the SBI has investigated about a third of CMPD’s fatal police shootings. The state agency launched probes only in cases where the families of shooting victims ask it to investigate.

Mayor Roberts said there are times when CMPD should use an independent investigator instead of its own officers.

“(In the Scott case) the video was so inconclusive,” Roberts said. “There are other instances where it’s more conclusive. When it’s inconclusive it’s helpful to have a third-party investigation. If we are confident that we are following protocols, we should welcome that.”

Putney said the department has no plans to default to independent investigations. He said CMPD has better investigative abilities than the SBI and other agencies. For example, he said, CMPD now records all its interviews during investigations, while other agencies take written notes.

Families of victims can ask for an external investigation, as the Scott family did, but Putney said he doesn’t think he should make that call for them.

“I’m going to always inform the family that they have that option, but I don’t think I should be the one doing that, because I think we do a very good job,” he said. “I know we’re very thorough.”

Union opposition

Some activists say that opposition from rank-and-file officers may scuttle reform efforts.

“There have been tensions between the chief and others in the city,” said Rev. Rodney Sadler, who has advised CMPD and is vice chair of the Clergy Coalition for Justice. “There are people who feel he has been too pro-people, too black and not enough for blue. He’s stuck in the middle.”

Mark Michalec, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 9, posted a letter to the group’s website criticizing a proposal to grant subpoena power to Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board.

The City Council established the board in 1997 to restore public confidence in the police department after three unarmed African-Americans were killed by white officers. Proponents wanted a group independent of the department to determine whether the police chief made the right disciplinary calls.

But critics argue the board has become a rubber stamp for the department’s disciplinary decisions. The panel has never sided against police in its 20-year history.

Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police, said there is no good reason to give the Citizens Review Board subpoena power.

CMPD already does a good job investigating misconduct, Hagler said.

“I don’t know how they are supposed to glean something from evidence that others don’t see,” said Hagler, who is chief for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Department.

Smith, a council member and Republican Mayoral candidate, said he and another council member lobbied Mecklenburg County’s delegation to the General Assembly to change the law.

State lawmakers did not agree to support new legislation, Smith said. They expressed concern that granting the volunteer board subpoena power could open the door to more lawsuits against law enforcement agencies, he said.

Sad anniversary

In the University City neighborhood where Scott lived, Warrick Gilchrist and Will Jackson said the one-year anniversary is a sad reminder how little has changed since the shooting.

They stood on the balcony of a two-story strip mall, where they work as barbers. Both watched closely as CMPD officers pulled over motorists across the street as part of a traffic safety initiative.

Gilchrist, 43, and Jackson, 49, both African-Americans, said residents remain angry about what happened to Scott.

“Nobody wants to be against a cop, but after so much has gone on, you don’t feel like they’re on your side,” Gilchrist said.

Jackson said he and other African Americans should be nervous carrying black cellphones because an officer might mistake it for a gun.

When asked if relations between the community and CMPD had improved over the last year, Jackson replied: “Hell, no.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @FrederickClasen

Coming up

Tuesday: Is the city on track creating 5,000 affordable housing units in three years?

Wednesday: Will a $1 million pledge create jobs for those who need them?