Prosecutors found no criminal wrongdoing in the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, but will his death still cost the city of Charlotte?
Scott’s family has retained the same attorney who last year won a record $2.25 million settlement from the city in a wrongful-death lawsuit from another police shooting.
In that case, the city acknowledged no wrongdoing in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. But lawyers for Scott’s family have already raised some of the same questions from that case in discussing how the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department handled its encounter with Scott.
Charles Monnett, who represented the Ferrell family and is now working with Scott’s survivors, has said it still isn’t clear whether officers had been properly trained or followed departmental policy.
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Three nationally known law enforcement experts who spoke with the Observer this week questioned why the officers did not do more to de-escalate the encounter with Scott before Officer Brentley Vinson fatally shot him at a University City apartment complex on Sept. 20.
After Scott’s death, riots and street demonstrations roiled Charlotte, prompted dozens of arrests and pushed Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a state of emergency. On Wednesday, Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray said the shooting was legally justified and that Vinson would not face criminal charges.
But experts who spoke with the Observer said they did not understand why officers approached an SUV where Scott was sitting and began banging on the vehicle and smashing glass if they feared he would shoot them. They said the actions appeared to intensify the encounter and might have increased the odds of bloodshed.
Police have said officers spotted Scott, 43, in the SUV with marijuana and a gun. Experts and civil rights advocates said police departments across the country direct their officers to use de-escalation tactics during potentially violent encounters. That includes keeping a safe distance from the suspect, speaking calmly and buying time to gain the person’s cooperation.
They also criticized CMPD because Vinson and the other officers on the scene were not carrying Tasers, pepper spray or other less lethal weapons. In an interview with an investigator, Vinson said he and other officers were armed only with firearms because they were undercover looking for a wanted felon and felt they needed to keep their weapons concealed.
“It is incomprehensible in these days and times an officer would not have pepper spray,” said Mel Tucker, a former FBI agent and the former police chief in Hickory, Asheville and Tallahassee, Fla.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said officers normally wait, if possible, until someone could bring them extra equipment.
“Typically, you fall back, set up a perimeter and start verbal communication,” Stoughton said. “I remain puzzled as to why the officers moved as aggressively as they did.”
CMPD is conducting an internal affairs investigation to determine whether Vinson and the other officers involved followed its rules.
A department spokesman would not answer questions, citing personnel privacy laws. George Laughrun, an attorney representing Vinson, also refused comment.
While some experts and protesters criticized how police handled the Scott shooting, others defended the officers’ approach.
Emanuel Kapelsohn, a firearms instructor and expert on police use of force based in Pennsylvania, said Scott’s refusal to follow repeated demands to drop the gun justifies what happened. Kapelsohn said the officers practiced more restraint than many others do under similar circumstances.
“Police have to respond based on someone’s actions,” Kapelsohn said. “There is no way for the officer to know what is going on in the suspect’s mind. A police officer is not a mind reader. They don’t have X-ray vision.”
He said it appeared CMPD reacted quickly because Scott brandished his weapon after they approached him.
“What are police supposed to do?” Kapelsohn said. “What, are police supposed to run away? Let’s just say police had not confronted him. This guy could have jumped out, run and shot somebody. They would then be saying that police should have confined him.”
In a more than 90-minute interview with police on Sept. 21, Vinson described the events prior to the shooting.
Vinson suggested officers were uncertain what to do when Scott did not comply with their commands right away.
For 15 or 20 seconds, he said, officers stood outside Scott’s vehicle and demanded Scott show his hands.
“He wasn’t going to comply, he kept his hands down, (Officer) Miranda’s yelling ‘Gun, gun, gun!’ Um... we’re not getting anywhere and I feel like we’re just...we’re just stuck,” Vinson said in transcripts released by the district attorney’s office. “Everybody’s stuck... everybody’s saying the same thing and nothing’s happening. We’re not getting any results. So that’s when Miranda finally starts saying, ‘Hey, let’s break the glass.’”
Scott stepped out of the vehicle with a gun in his right hand, Vinson said.
“So it wasn’t as though he was trying to figure out, ‘How do I comply with the police,’ he wasn’t trying to figure how out how he could get away, he was trying to figure out how he was going to shoot it out,” Vinson said.
If feasible, CMPD policy says, verbal dialogue and commands seeking to defuse situations should be utilized throughout encounters.
But some experts in use of force by police said it did not appear that officers used de-escalation tactics before approaching Scott’s car or after he stepped outside.
Experts said best practices call for officers to remain patient if the suspect is confined and does not pose an imminent threat.
Stoughton, the law professor, said officers have three choices during such confrontations: They can hold their positions, advance or retreat.
The extra time, he said, gives officers more time to assess the threat and try to decide if there are alternatives to using deadly force.
“Adding a gun to the mix makes time a more important tactical concept,” Stoughton said. “There is a time limit, but it should be measured in hours, not minutes.”
Kenneth Williams, a professor at the Houston College of Law and an expert on police use of force, said he questioned why officers did not use Scott’s wife to negotiate with him.
A cellphone video released by the victim’s family shows that before shots were fired, Scott’s wife told officers that he suffered from a “TBI,” or traumatic brain injury. It’s not clear if officers understood her.
The Ferrell case
When the city of Charlotte in May 2015 settled a lawsuit in the police shooting of Ferrell, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police faced questions over how the department assesses officers’ readiness to carry out deadly force.
In 2013, Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter in the killing. The trial ended in a hung jury.
The civil lawsuit accused CMPD of failing to adequately train and supervise officers in the use of force. It said the department had a “long and extensive history of excessive force by its officers.”
Monnett said no decision has been made about filing a civil lawsuit in the Scott case. He refused further comment.
Scott suffered his brain injury in a motorcycle accident in November 2015 in Charleston. It left him with a stutter and memory problems.
Monnett, the family’s attorney, said Scott was likely confused during his encounter with police.
“We believe this situation....could have ended with everyone alive,” Monnett said.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney has said he believes the shooting was legally justified, but he has not addressed whether officials used proper de-escalation tactics.
Putney has said the department in recent years has already made reforms in training, including how officers practice scenarios on an interactive simulator that tests their use of cover, verbal skills and weapons handling.
Also this month, Putney called for an independent review of the department’s handling of the Scott case as well as its policies, procedures and relationship with the community. The city council endorsed the outside review by independent consultants with the Police Foundation, which could take six to eight months to complete. The review will not address the minutes leading up to the confrontation, or whether the shooting was justified.
Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and nationally known police accountability expert, said it is critical that departments discipline officers who do not follow training and policy during officer-involved shootings.
Juries rarely convict officers, Walker said, so department discipline is one of the few means available to help police make better decisions about deadly force and to reduce the number of shootings.
“We have 18,000 police departments and no central authority,” Walker said. “Change is going to be slow.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027 @FrederickClasen