Officer put a gun to the head of an unarmed man. Here’s what CMPD chief thought.

Four CMPD officers tackle suspect

After an extended foot chase four Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers are shown on a video punching, elbowing and holding a pistol to an unarmed suspect's head during a March arrest.
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After an extended foot chase four Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers are shown on a video punching, elbowing and holding a pistol to an unarmed suspect's head during a March arrest.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said Thursday he “can’t defend” the actions of an officer captured on video putting a gun to an unarmed man’s head during an arrest.

The incident took place in March 2016 when police chased James Yarborough, who was a passenger in a car driven by a man wanted in connection with multiple larcenies.

CMPD body camera footage obtained by Observer news partner WBTV shows multiple officers on top of Yarborough. During the four-minute struggle, an officer put his gun to Yarborough’s temple, and said, “I will kill you, you understand? Give me your hand now!”

The officers called for Yarborough to put his hands behind his back multiple times, which the video shows him unable to do because officers were restraining him. An officer is later heard asking the other officers to get off of Yarborough so he could put his hands behind his back.

At one point, an officer is seen repeatedly punching Yarborough in the back of the head. Putney said those actions fell within department guidelines, because officers said he was resisting them.

Yarborough ran from the car, which was driven by a man who was attempting to sell him a gun, he told WBTV. Yarborough has multiple convictions for illegally owning a firearm, and told the station he ran to avoid being arrested for another gun offense.

A CMPD Internal Affairs review determined the officers, including the officer who held the gun to Yarborough, acted reasonably. Jon Dunham, the officer who drew his pistol, left the department about a month after the incident for a job in the Davidson police department, before the CMPD investigation was complete.

Cristina Shaul, a spokeswoman for the city of Davidson, said Dunham had received a conditional offer to work with the police department weeks before the incident occurred. Shaul said Davidson Police Chief Jeanne Miller reviewed the tape, including the foot chase, and determined Dunham’s actions were justified.

Major Stella Patterson had previously defended Dunham’s actions, saying Dunham had believed Yarborough had a weapon, according to WBTV.

Despite his misgivings about Dunham’s actions, Putney defended the department’s right to use force to detain a suspect. “There is no use of force that’s going to play well (on video),” Putney said. “They just don’t look good.”

CMPD’s use of force policy dictates that officers can only use techniques such as punches, kicks and knee and elbow strikes, when a suspect is showing defensive resistance or active aggression. Defensive resistance, according to department policy, is considered actions to prevent being placed in custody, such as running away, twisting and pulling. Active aggression is intended to hurt an officer, and includes punching and kicking.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts said in a statement that the incident was “both preventable and unacceptable.”

“No one can justify pressing a gun to the head of one of our unarmed citizens and threatening to kill them. I agree with Chief Putney’s statement today that the officer’s actions were indefensible,” she said.

The relationship between the community and the department has been under greater scrutiny in Charlotte since the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016 that sparked multiple peaceful protests and one night of rioting in uptown.

In the wake of that, the department has contracted with The Police Foundation, a national group that will review handling of the Scott shooting and the department’s response afterward.

Putney acknowledged tensions between the community and the department since the Scott shooting, and said he is focused on making sure only appropriate force.

“I’m getting used to being on edge, I think that’s the new reality,” he said. “I’m concerned every time we use force because I want to make sure that we’re trying to reach that higher standard.”

CMPD announced it is working to have a superior court release the video of the Dunham incident to media and the public in its entirety.

LaVendrick Smith; 704-358-5101; @LaVendrickS

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