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Police and the killings of unarmed civilians

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

The tragic death of an unarmed black man, shot 10 times by a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer last week, sent me scurrying for something I had written 17 years ago at a similar moment.

It was in the fall of 1996. That time, an unarmed black man died when a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer fired five times at him when he got out of his car, and reached back inside. The officer said he thought the man was reaching for a gun. The man’s four-year-old daughter was in the back seat.

I wrote this then: “In the aftermath of the shooting of a Charlotte motorist last week at a traffic stop, I hope we can all agree on this – unarmed people stopped by police shouldn’t wind up dead.”

And I wrote this: “That’s no blanket indictment of a young police officer who likely had legitimate fear during that encounter. It’s simply an acknowledgment that death was the wrong outcome – whatever the explanations. Unless we start from there, we will learn nothing to help us avoid the next similar encounter.”

Today, following another tragedy, I repeat those words.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe was pretty clear that he believes Saturday’s shooting could have been avoided. In explaining the department’s decision to charge Officer Randall Kerrick, 27, with voluntary manslaughter in the death of Jonathan Ferrell, 24, he said as much to the Observer’s editorial board. He explained that even if an assailant runs toward the police, that’s not ample reason for an officer to discharge a weapon:

“We have people charging at us everyday; we get in fights everyday, but at that point we’re not justified in using deadly force,” Monroe said. “Sometimes we have to put up our hands and use our nightstick and other things and sometimes just retreat to handle the situation and it can’t automatically result in use of deadly force.”

A lot is still not known – at least publicly – about what happened in that shooting early Saturday morning in the Bradfield Farms subdivision in northeast Mecklenburg County. The investigation is ongoing. Kerrick’s lawyers contend he was justified. On Thursday, Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray asked the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to prosecute the case, citing a possible conflict.

This much is known and isn’t in dispute: Three officers responded to a frantic 911 call from a woman who thought a man who knocked on her door around 2:30 a.m. was a robber. They encountered Ferrell, shoeless, on a road near the house. Ferrell walked then ran toward the officers, Monroe said. One officer fired a Taser, then Kerrick fired 12 shots, hitting Ferrell with 10.

After the shooting, police found Ferrell’s car crashed into an embankment. Ferrell had kicked out the back window to climb out of the mangled vehicle, investigators said. He apparently walked a quarter mile up a hill to the nearby house to seek help not rob, they speculate.

That probability makes the ensuing events all the more horrific.

It’s unknown whether race played a part in what happened Saturday. But as it was 17 years ago, race once again is a backdrop.

That’s hardly surprising. Repeated news accounts of unarmed black men being shot and killed by police fuel legitimate anxiety, anger and frustration among many people, especially African Americans. That anger, frustration and anxiety should be taken seriously. People shouldn’t have to fear that the people whose job is to protect them might harm them instead. Good relations between police and civilians is essential to effectively tackling crime and adequately safeguarding people and communities.

It was that dangerously frayed sense of trust 17 years ago that pushed police and this community to make needed changes after a spate of unarmed civilians were killed by CMPD officers, including that man at the traffic stop, and a woman who was killed four months later after police shot 22 times at a car she was in.

Not only did a civilian police review board arise out of those tragedies, but then-police chief Dennis Nowicki pushed new police training and more outreach to communities to engender more civilian understanding of police officers’ work and protocols. It also spurred the expanded use of cameras in police cars, something that had only limited use prior to that time because of the expense.

Some of those changes may still be lacking.

For the last several months there has been a push to give the Citizens Review Board more power. An Observer investigation earlier this year showed the board had looked at 79 cases without ever ruling against police. In most cases, it never conducted a hearing. Charlotte’s City Council is now reviewing the structure and duties of the board to see if changes are needed.

As for the dash cams on police cars, this shooting seems to illustrate its shortcomings. Lawyers for the dead man and the officer who fired the shots expressed differing views of what the video footage shows – footage that police say they won’t yet make public because of the ongoing probe. But just before the shots are fired, the victim goes out of the camera’s range, leaving no evidence, other than the officers’ words, about how the final moments played out.

So, it is good to know that Charlotte police last month began testing cameras on police officers’ bodies to record their encounters. That would provide a more complete view of what happens as police do their jobs than dash cams can provide.

Nothing though can erase the horror and pain of the past weekend’s events. Georgia Ferrell’s moving expression of forgiveness for the police officer who killed her son is something we can all learn from. But this expectation she expressed, with red-rimmed eyes while clutching her son’s yellow Winnie the Pooh doll, is a valid one: “I expected my son to bury me, not for me to bury him.”

Her words underscore what is apparent in many police shootings of unarmed civilians – too often young black men: the shootings are avoidable. That calls out for changes – in attitudes and actions.

Here’s how I ended that column 17 years ago: “Being a police officer is a dangerous, stressful and scary job. No one envies these officers their work, or the hard choices they must make in a moment’s time. But none of us should accept as inevitable that unarmed citizens will die during encounters with police. That’s the wrong outcome.” That’s still true.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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