Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney acknowledged Sunday that policing has a “racist and bigoted history,” but he said his department is working to overcome that past by building a closer relationship to the black community.
He also said he’s hoping the black community will meet him halfway.
“We’re trying to reach out to the public, because it’s hard to hate up close. Once you get to know us, you can’t help but like us,” Putney said, adding that he has no intention of sugarcoating the community’s problems.
“We (black Charlotteans) need to get our house in order, too. We have to take some of the responsibility for some of our actions, knowing that the decisions we make will have consequences. I’m not saying … police officers are perfect. We’re not. Guess where we recruit from? The public. All of us come from regular people.”
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Putney made his comments over a series of three sermons at Lancaster County’s Transformation Church, a fast growing, interracial congregation of about 3,500 people.
He was invited to speak after a week of hard knocks for the nation’s law enforcement departments. Protests sprang up in Charlotte and across the nation after two videos were posted online showing black suspects being killed by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Then, on Thursday, 12 officers were shot, five of them killed, in an ambush in Dallas, Texas, during what had been a peaceful Black Lives Matter march. The suspect was a black man who said he was exacting revenge against white officers for violence against black suspects.
Putney said the latter hit close to home for him, because he has a fraternity brother who is a corporal in Dallas. “The only reason I’m in this line of work is because (he) convinced me that this was a noble profession. I spent the day trying to connect with him to make sure he was OK.”
As for the videos of suspects killed in Louisiana and Minnesota, Putney said they “made me sick.” He said he addressed the videos in a speech to his department that included a story of something that happened to him at age 8, when he had a negative encounter with a police officer. He didn’t give details.
“I was struggling to put into words what I think,” Putney said. “I wanted to make sure people understood from a black man’s perspective, from a police officer’s perspective and from a leader of Charlotte’s perspective.
“We’ve got to get through this. We’ve got to confront some difficult things. We’ve got to stop trying to sugarcoat everything.”
Transformation Church is headed by the Rev. Derwin Gray, a former NFL player with the Indianapolis Colts and the Carolina Panthers. Gray told the congregation he invited Putney to help them understand the challenges police face, but he noted “the history of the United States has not been the easiest road for black men.”
As Putney listened, Gray told his congregation there is little doubt some people in law enforcement do not have good intentions.
“You say it’s rare,” Gray said of the killing of black suspects, “but one time is too many.”
It happened in Charlotte in 2013, when white officer Randall Kerrick fatally shot black suspect Jonathan Ferrell, after it appeared Ferrell was running at the officer. The case ended in a mistrial.
That shooting did not come up Sunday in Putney’s conversation. But he said his department is imperfect and acknowledged “the racist and bigoted history” of policing, not just in Charlotte, but around the country.
No amount of police training can overcome ill will in someone’s heart, he said.
“I was born black and I’m going to die black. It’s obvious, but some people need to know that, because what happens to black lives impacts me,” said Putney, adding that as police chief, all lives must matter to him.
“I can tell you that I’m sick and tired,” he said, “of getting up in the middle of the night and seeing black bodies laying in the street.”