Charlotte police shootings prompt deeper review

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are reviewing their training and policies in the wake of two recent deadly shootings, but the city has no plans for an independent assessment of police procedures, as other cities have ordered after similar cases.

Experts who conduct such independent reviews, when presented this week with information on CMPD use-of-force policies and training, praised the department for how it trains cadets and uses incident and personnel data to spot potential problems with officers. But they said Charlotte is behind other cities in how it investigates what leads up to a shooting.

CMPD chiefs called for the internal review following the deaths of Aaron Winchester, who was shot two months ago while fleeing police, and Darryl Turner, who was shot with a Taser gun in March during a confrontation at a University-area Food Lion.

Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton, through a spokesperson, said he and new Police Chief Rodney Monroe had not discussed an outside review. Monroe said he has no plans for one, although his department will be tapping into police membership organizations that offer research and advice about procedures.

“We're in the process of consulting those organizations,” Monroe said. “We are trying to figure out the best mechanisms and methods for our officers.”

Since 2000, more than a half-dozen cities – including Cincinnati and New York – have hired outside consultants to come to their cities and review police training, policies and reports following officer-involved shootings.

Denver, Colo., and Portland have ordered reviews as a preemptive step.

“It helps to do a systemic review by an outsider,” said Richard Rosenthal, an independent police monitor for the city and county of Denver. Rosenthal recommended the outside reviews in Denver and Portland, where he held a similar position.

Rosenthal said that after Portland's review, police restructured investigations of deadly force. “It gives the department a tool that it otherwise wouldn't have.” Separate CMPD investigations continue into the Winchester shooting, in which police and witnesses have disputed whether he was turning toward officers with a gun. In the Taser death, Officer Jerry Dawson Jr. was suspended earlier this month for five days for violating policy by shocking the 17-year-old Turner for about 37 seconds with the Taser.

A third officer was fired earlier this month after a review board determined she was unjustified in shooting a man at a Central Avenue gas station. The man survived. Officer Jenny Curlee became the first Charlotte police officer fired in connection with a shooting in more than a decade.

Many CMPD practices lauded

Two experts in independent police reviews said Charlotte uses many of the best practices followed by agencies around the country.

“Charlotte has had a series of well-regarded, progressive chiefs; it doesn't surprise me that their practices largely are good ones,” said Merrick Bobb, founding director of the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center, which completed a review for Denver last month.

Said Greg Ridgeway, director of the Rand Center on Quality Policing: “In many ways, what they do sounds very good.”

Ridgeway applauds much of CMPD's Police Academy training, which emphasizes a mix of hands-on and classroom instruction on the use of force. Cadets get at least six full days of exercises that mimic traffic stops and domestic disturbances in daylight and darkness.

“Police training in many places has been lots of classroom time and little time to work things out in real life,” said Ridgeway, who encourages the department to increase hands-on training as much as possible. “What needs to happen is practice. Do it when it's light, when it's dark. If you make mistakes, do it again.”

Bobb and Ridgeway, neither of whom have been hired by Charlotte officials, laud CMPD arming its officers with Tasers, which the experts called a less-lethal alternative to pistols. Charlotte police are reviewing Taser training in wake of the Turner death, said Deputy Chief Ken Miller.

Ridgeway said CMPD also is among a small but growing number of police agencies – including Phoenix and Pittsburgh – that use data collection to spot troublesome trends with officers. CMPD's Early Intervention System tracks a range of information – from citizen complaints and use-of-force incidents to sick time used and other personnel issues. “Some of the remedies may be training, or maybe counseling,” said Charlotte police Capt. Mike Campagna, the department's training director.

Experts see a shortcoming

Charlotte falls short of other cities in using shooting investigations as a learning opportunity, said experts, who pointed to cities such as Los Angeles that place a greater emphasis on looking at the decisions and tactics that led up to the shooting.

“If you look at a moment that the officer fires, almost always the officer will be within his right to shoot,” Bobb said. “But it's critically important to determine how the officer got himself or herself into the position to fire.”

Like most cities, Charlotte holds two investigations in shootings that result in death or injury. Along with a criminal investigation, CMPD's Internal Affairs investigates whether the shooting violated department policy.

Unlike many cities, experts say, that second CMPD investigation begins immediately, with Internal Affairs officers appearing on the shooting scene to witness the criminal investigation. I.A. investigators also watch live or recorded interviews of witnesses and conduct their own interview of the shooting officer in each case, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg I.A. Capt. Roslyn Maglione. Those practices earned good marks from experts.

Maglione said that information from investigations occasionally reveals tactical issues and troubling patterns, which are shared with supervisors and the academy. Monroe said that hearings into shootings also deal with tactical issues.

“We are constantly looking for opportunities to learn,” said Deputy Chief Miller. “If you look at the I.A. reports, you'll find that we hold ourselves accountable very well.”

Other cities, however, place a more formal emphasis on investigating all the decisions that lead to a shooting, experts said. Los Angeles police assign one person in each shooting investigation to focus on tactics, Ridgeway said. Portland police developed a checklist of questions to ask officers involved in shootings that emphasizes background and events that preceded the shooting, so that investigators can paint a fuller picture of what happened.

Washington, D.C.'s Metro Police Department, when determining whether officers violated policy in shooting incidents, have added an additional classification to rulings: “Exonerated – Tactical Learning Opportunity.” Having that classification sends a message to investigators that tactics should be a major part of their focus, Bobb said.

Denver officials also formed a Tactical Review Board for incidents, including shootings. That board operates separately from the shooting-review board – which most agencies, including CMPD, use to determine if an officer violated policy.

Denver, along with a dozen other cities including Los Angeles and New Orleans, have replaced or complemented citizens police review boards – such as the one used in Charlotte – with the office of independent monitor, sometimes called “police monitor,” to investigate and analyze incidents involving police. Critics say Charlotte's citizen review board, formed in 1997 after several high-profile police shootings, doesn't have the authority to thoroughly investigate cases involving deadly force.

Rosenthal, Denver's independent monitor, said the access he receives allows him to be more effective than citizens boards. Rosenthal is on the scene of investigations and receives briefings by police. His reports on incidents are made public to ensure transparency, he said.

“I'm not just looking at individual cases, but systemically,” he said. “We're oversight that doesn't just play gotcha. We help the police in policing themselves.”

One way to do that, Rosenthal said, is to let someone else take a look at policy.

“The problem is that often with police departments, they get extremely busy policing – dealing with day-to-day issues,” he said. “These reviews provide an opportunity to take a step back.”

Said Monroe: “ I would never close my mind to say that we're doing everything we could possibly do. There are still other things that we need to look at to make sure our training and policies are solid.”