A former Charlotte police officer, who was the target of a citizens complaint after he held a gun to an unarmed man’s head and threatened to kill him, remains in “good standing” as a member of the Davidson Police Department and has received a promotion since joining the force there, Davidson town officials told the Observer this week.
Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Officer Jon Dunham was accused by James Yarborough, a Charlotte resident, of using too much force during an early 2016 arrest. Police video and audio footage from the incident shows Dunham held his gun to Yarborough’s head telling Yarborough, “I will kill you.”
CMPD’s initial internal review of the incident in 2016 found Dunham followed all police policies and procedures. Yarborough, though, contested the police department’s findings and a police oversight group, the Charlotte Citizens Review Board, this week found in favor of Yarborough.
It’s the first time in the board’s 20-year history that members have sided with a citizen in a complaint case against police.
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The Citizens Review Board voted 7-1 that CMPD Kerr Putney should have punished Dunham for violating police use of force policies.
Instead, CMPD cleared Dunham in the citizens complaint and he left his job a few weeks after the incident to accept a position at Davidson Police. Later, after video and audio footage from the incident was released to the public, Putney said some officer actions during the arrest were “indefensible.”
This month, CMPD took up the complaint again and Putney reviewed the case. He came to a different conclusion.
Dunham engaged in conduct “unbecoming of an office,” a rule violation, Putney said in a letter to Yarborough dated Sept. 6. The infraction would be listed in his personnel file.
But, Dunham will not face direct disciplinary action because he’s no longer employed.
The latest review of the case came in the weeks before CMPD prepared to defends its actions in an appeal Yarborough filed to the Citizens Review Board. After Putney issued the new disciplinary decision, CMPD attorneys sought to have the complaint case dismissed. But, the Citizens Review Board refused that request.
Dunham has not spoken publicly about the case.
Town of Davidson officials told the Observer this week CMPD’s reversal of the disciplinary decision after more than a year has passed is “unprecedented.” Dunham is in good standing and has been promoted to the rank of corporal.
Dunham’s corporal rank at Davidson is higher than the position he held at CMPD. He’d previously worked at Davidson Police for three years before joining CMPD. Dunham was with CMPD from 2008 to early 2016.
Davidson town officials said they offered Dunham a job in February 2016, a month before the incident happened. Before he started his new job May 5, 2016, CMPD told Davidson Police that Dunham had been cleared of wrongdoing in the case, officials said.
But, in a letter to Yarborough this month, Putney said the initial review concluded May 10, 2016. Dunham, Putney said, was no longer employed when the final review of 2016 finished.
CMPD has not said why Putney’s conclusion was different than the chain of command review that took place in 2016. Putney told Yarborough in a letter that he took up the new review after hearing initial concerns about police actions from citizens on the review board in late July.
Policy changes at CMPD
Rob Tufano, spokesman for CMPD, told the Observer this week, Putney consulted with an attorney for the police department about his options to review the complaint against Dunham more than a year later. In 2016, Putney did not believe he had the authority to finalize the internal investigation with a finding of disciplinary action because the officer was no longer employed at CMPD, Tufano said. With advice from an attorney, CMPD decided in 2017 it had a “legal option to administer discipline” and now has changed policy to make sure complaints are investigated and end with a final decision, whether or not an officer stays with the department, Tufano said.
Yarborough’s attorney Luke Largess, of Charlotte, says he believes the only reason CMPD re-examined the case this year and drew a different conclusion on Dunham’s actions is because the Citizens Review Board accepted his client’s appeal and was prepared to vote against the police department.
Review board hearings are a two-step process with the board meeting first to determine whether a complaint brings enough evidence to suggest CMPD erred in its original disciplinary decision. A second round of hearings, then, includes witness testimony, cross-examination and presentations from attorneys on both sides. At the end of the second stage, called evidentiary hearings, the board votes.
In Yarborough’s case, the Citizens Review Board recommends Putney uphold the citizens complaint that Dunham used excessive force and says the chief has erred in his assessment. The board also says it will send a list of policy change recommendations to CMPD, in light of hearing Yarborough’s case.
In response, the department says its making some changes on its own. CMPD has created a new specialized unit to randomly review officer body-camera video footage, which could lead to future investigations of officer actions. The new unit began in July 2017, according to CMPD, and will be ran by senior law enforcement officers who audit at least one video each month from every officer on the force who wears a body camera.
Employees inside CMPD’s Office of Professional Standards also review how often officers are activating their body cam video and audio equipment to record situations required under department policy.
CMPD says it’s also reviewing and making changes to how it handles complaints from people who visit police headquarters in person to share concerns, which is what Yarborough did two days after he was charged with resisting arrest. The charges were later dropped.
His complaint against Dunham, though, continued and went through what police call a “chain of command” review. Typically, Internal Affairs would handle complaints of severe allegations against police, such as excessive use of force or racial profiling.
“It should have gone to internal affairs for review, but I don’t know if that would have made a difference,” Largess said. “It seems CMPD felt the matter was resolved when Dunham left voluntarily.”
Jane Wester contributed.