Review board splits 4-4 on police shooting, will give private recommendations to CMPD
Charlotte’s Citizens Review Board reviewed a fatal police shooting and recommended policy changes for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney Thursday – but the board won’t say what those recommendations are.
Putney, who has not yet seen the proposals, will review them with City Manager Marcus Jones, a city spokesperson said in a statement. The board arrived at the recommendations after a three-day, closed-door hearing.
In a separate vote, the board split 4-4 on whether Putney was wrong to conclude that Officer Brentley Vinson followed all department policies and procedures in last year’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
The Citizens Review Board has never ruled against police in its 20-year history, and city officials said Thursday that this is likely the first tie.
Corine Mack, president of Charlotte’s NAACP and board chair of SAFE Coalition N.C., which has lobbied for reform to the Citizens Review Board, said she was encouraged by the board’s unanimous recommendations to the police department.
But she was frustrated that they were not released publicly.
Cary Davis, a Charlotte attorney who is legal counsel to the board, said state personnel law prohibits the board from releasing its recommendations publicly. The recommendations will reach Putney in a couple of weeks, Davis said.
Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, said they should be public.
“The clear purpose of the open records law is that you cannot make public policy recommendations in secret” Jones said. “I'm not aware of anything that would make that private.”
Vinson killed Scott outside a University City apartment complex in September, sparking days of protests and dozens of arrests in the city.
The shooting prompted two investigations, both of which cleared Vinson.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray decided Vinson would face no criminal charges because he was legally justified in shooting Scott. CMPD’s internal investigation determined Vinson violated no department policy or procedure in the case.
The Citizens Review Board provides civilian oversight to the police department’s disciplinary process. Once the internal investigation ended, the Scott family’s lawyers brought the case before the board, which held a preliminary hearing in June and an evidentiary hearing, which ended Thursday.
None of the board members contacted by the Charlotte Observer responded to questions about Thursday’s hearing and vote. One member told the Observer she could not make comments due to a confidentiality agreement. Another member said it is board policy that all public statements go through Sandra Donaghy, the chair. Donaghy did not return the Observer’s phone call.
Board members are required to attend an orientation and to sign a confidentiality agreement. Parties to the matter before the board – lawyers and witnesses, for example – are also required to sign the confidentiality agreement.
The split vote reflects the community’s beliefs about a difficult and tragic case, Davis said.
Mack said the board is set up with an odd number of members to break ties just like this. But during the three-day hearing, only eight of the board’s 11 seats were full.
Two members, David Smith and vice chair Theresa Halsey, did not attend the hearing, according to a roll call Tuesday. Davis said he couldn’t comment on why Smith and Halsey were absent.
The board also has one vacancy, because a member was removed from the board in late July for missing too many meetings, the city said.
The vacancy is one of three mayor-appointed seats on the board; the others are appointed by the city council or city manager.
Gregg Watkins, a spokesperson for Mayor Jennifer Roberts, said the mayor could not have had a replacement in time for today’s vote. He said the new member would have needed to attend other CRB meetings about the Scott case before participating Thursday.
“They wouldn’t have been eligible to vote today,” he said.
Lawyers representing Vinson and the Scott family each said the split vote was “a win” for their side.
Justin Bamberg, a lawyer for the Scott family, said even though he and his clients don’t believe that Scott’s shooting was justified, they respect the board’s decision. The family may still pursue a civil lawsuit, he said.
“Keith’s loss has not been in vain up to this point...there is going to be a new undercover officer body camera policy in place, and that’s a substantial step forward,” he said.
Bamberg said the board decided on its recommendations in closed session, without either side’s lawyers present. He hopes the recommendations will involve CMPD improving the tactics they use when interacting with members of the public, to keep people from being injured or killed during police encounters.
He said he expects the board’s recommendations to be taken seriously by the city.
Attorney George Laughrun, who represented Vinson, said the burden of proof was on the Scott family to show that Putney should overturn his decision, and the board’s vote shows they didn’t meet that burden.
Activists have said the board needs subpoena power in order to properly investigate cases. Davis said the lack of subpoena power did not limit the board’s review.
Mack said members clearly did their jobs and listened carefully to lots of evidence, but she saw echoes of the pain from past hung juries, including CMPD Officer Randall Kerrick’s 2015 trial after he shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell. The jurors in Kerrick’s trial could not come to a conclusion, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Maria David contributed to this story