Charlotte-Mecklenburg police used force against suspects far more frequently last year largely, they say, because they decided to police high-crime areas more aggressively.
In late 2006, police began using data to identify crime “hot spots” throughout the county, and officers were told to engage with more people in those areas. Field interviews more than doubled. Traffic stops rose 30 percent. Police conducted more raids and searches.
The changes helped reduce violent crime. But they also led to more confrontations between police and uncooperative subjects, said Deputy Chief Ken Miller.
“You have more officers out there engaging and initiating more activities,” Miller said Saturday. “When you increase enforcement, you generally encounter more opportunities for force.”
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On Thursday, the department released a report showing police use-of-force incidents rose from 399 in 2006 to 505 last year – an increase of 27 percent. Less than 1 percent of the incidents were found to have violated department policies, according to the 2007 Internal Affairs Report.
The annual report assesses use of force, vehicle chases and other instances of police-citizen contact. The department generally defines force as the use of physical exertion or a device to control another person.
Local leaders said Friday the numbers are worrisome and at least merit further study. “Frankly, the use of force has been an issue here for some time,” said Dwayne Collins, chair of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
National figures are hard to come by because departments define and count instances of force differently.
But a 2001 study suggests Charlotte's rate of force may exceed the national average. The Charlotte report also shows officer use of force against black suspects was disproportionately high, compared with their arrest rate.
New police Chief Rodney Monroe said he wants more information, too. He said he's forming an internal committee to examine training issues, look more carefully at use-of-force and other data, identify trends and help him adjust policies if need be. Monroe, who began work June 16, wasn't chief in 2007. He replaced Darrel Stephens, who retired in June.
Monroe said he had planned to create the committee this month anyway, but the findings dovetail with what he wants the committee to look at. A week ago, Monroe announced an extensive restructuring of the department, aimed mainly at putting more patrol officers on the streets.
“I want our people to look at these and see what was driving this increase,” Monroe said. “These are all just numbers … Now we have to do some further investigation to see what they mean.”
‘Why they use deadly force'
The report follows a series of controversial uses of police force, including the Taser death of 17-year-old Darryl Turner in March and the shooting death of 21-year-old Aaron Winchester in May.
The deaths have made local civil rights leaders wary of police practices.
“The big question is: Did they use the force that needed to be used?” said Collins, the former head of the NAACP's Charlotte branch.
In the mid-1990s, the deaths of three unarmed black motorists in Charlotte touched off street protests and led to the creation of an independent citizens' oversight board to review allegations of excessive force.
Collins said that he, along with representatives from the Urban League and the Black Women's Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, plans to discuss the department's use of force with Monroe in the next two to three weeks. “Specifically, when and why they use deadly force,” Collins said.
The recent change in police tactics came with a shuffling of the department's top spots in late 2006. Deputy Chief Jerry Sennett was appointed to head patrol and broadened the use of computer models to pinpoint crime hot spots and determine where to focus resources.
It's hard to compare police departments' use of force. The FBI, which compiles uniform crime statistics, doesn't track it.
But a 2001 study found that U.S. police agencies used force an average of 3.61 times for every 10,000 calls for service. By contrast, the Charlotte report shows police used force 13 times per 10,000 calls in 2007 – more than three times the average in the study.
The Washington-based International Association of Chiefs of Police polled 564 police agencies in 13 states and the District of Columbia, plus the U.S. Border Patrol. Four of every five agencies were city or town police departments. But the study doesn't break down how big the departments are or what their crime rates are.
Variables in record-keeping and circumstances among police departments make comparing use-of-force rates an inexact science, said John Firman, the association's research director.
“There is no simple answer,” he said.
A racial disparity
The Charlotte report does show that police are more likely to use force when they arrest blacks than whites.
In 2007, 74 percent of the department's 505 uses of force were against blacks, who accounted for 68 percent of arrests. Whites, who account for 23 percent of the department's arrests, made up only 18 percent of the subjects officers used force against.
Monroe, Charlotte's first black police chief, has promised his department will treat people the same regardless of race and work to make sure the department, which is 17 percent black, reflects the racial makeup of the county, which is 30 percent black. He said he can't judge what the racial disparity might mean until he analyzes the data more closely.
The discrepancy might not be surprising, considering the increased presence of mainly black gangs, said City Council member Warren Turner, who chairs the council's Community Safety Committee. Turner, a state probation officer, is black.
He said he's more concerned about the crime rate dropping. He said he believes Monroe's focus on increased patrols will deter crime. He said he wouldn't be surprised if next year's report shows use-of-force incidents had risen again – which wouldn't bother him if the crime rate fell.
“All of it concerns me. It's not something that we should take lightly,” Turner said. “But we should place it in its proper context and learn from it.”