In the wake of violent protests following last month’s fatal police shooting, Charlotte officials this week moved quickly to calm tensions.
Their focus: adding more affordable housing, jobs and launching an outside review of the police department.
But community activists and even some elected officials remain skeptical about the efforts approved by City Council on Monday. They don’t believe the steps will directly address how officers use deadly force, particularly against African-Americans. More emphasis, they said, should go toward holding officers accountable for misconduct and at improving training.
Council members defended their approach.
Councilman Ed Driggs said racial inequality in housing, jobs and other social areas helped cause the unrest, adding that he interpreted the events as a “cry of despair.”
“We need to get to the root causes,” Driggs said.
The proposal, however, only raised more questions for Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners member Vilma Leake, who attended the meeting and addressed the council. She said she fears Charlotte has not made nearly enough progress on the relationship between police and black residents. “I’m worried tonight that you don’t have a solution to that problem,” Leake said.
Council member Claire Fallon voted in favor of the changes along with the rest of the council, but she also said she believed it doesn’t address daily interactions between police and citizens.
“We have to find a new way of policing,” Fallon said. “This is a different day and time.”
Police Chief Kerr Putney told the Observer the department in recent years has already made reforms in training, including how officers practice shoot-don’t shoot scenarios on an interactive simulator that tests their use of cover, verbal skills and weapons handling.
He also acknowledged that his department shares the challenge of many across the nation in its struggle to overcome a complex racial history dating back to Jim Crow.
“We are just like any organization nationally, so the distrust of the police applies to us as well,” Putney said. “We know that. We acknowledge that. Now it’s time to get to work to do what we can to change that.”
What city officials must decide in coming months is how much or how little reform is needed at CMPD, which had garnered a national reputation as a forward-thinking, progressive department.
Consultants from the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., will review CMPD’s policies and procedures, in addition to its handling of the Sept. 20 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
City officials have said the group could take six to eight months to come up with findings and recommendations, which will be released publicly. The would include an examination of how CMPD responded to the protests, the department’s relationship with the community and other issues, they said.
Police have said they confronted Scott because he had a gun and marijuana outside the University City apartment where he lived. Social media accounts that Scott, 43, was unarmed quickly spread and prompted large protests that roiled the University City area and uptown.
The outcome of the external review could carry significant implications for race relations in Charlotte and the broader national debate about the killings of African American at the hands of police officers.
Community activists said they are closely watching how intensely Charlotte leaders work to hold officers accountable and to heal relations worsened by last month’s shooting.
An Observer investigation last year found that CMPD officers were involved in 67 shootings from 2005 to 2015. In those cases, one officer was charged with a crime. Two times officers received stiff internal sanctions such as a suspension or termination.
Kass Ottley, a protestor, said activists want assurances that CMPD will conduct new training in de-escalation tactics and impose new rules requiring all officers to use body cameras and to take a less aggressive approach from officers during peaceful demonstrations.
She noted that Officer Brentley Vinson, who killed Scott, was not wearing a body camera when the shooting happened.
“A lot of their policies are killing people,” Ottley said. “We have gotten no answers from City Council. We have been going to City Council for five months now. That’s why people are so angry.”
The Rev. Rodney Sadler, a Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice leader, said groups that had worked with CMPD following the shooting of another black man three years ago now feel betrayed.
“We thought we had a different police force that would be more careful about the use of force,” Sadler said. “The relationship between the police department and the community was not as strong as we had thought. This time, people are thinking the system has totally broken down.”
Sadler said he is pleased an outside review is being conducted, but he and others want to see a fundamental shift in how CMPD operates.
CMPD officers and citizens should seek relationships based on mutual respect, but too often predominately African-American neighborhoods are patrolled in a manner that feels like “state-sponsored social control,” Sadler said.
“If something feels like slavery, African Americans are going to resist,” he said. “Where’s your ID? Where is your permission to be here? It’s like asking, ‘Where are your papers?’”
Frank Baumgartner, a UNC political scientist whose team studied 18 million traffic stops across the state, said that traditional police techniques of targeting high-crime neighborhoods for traffic stops, searches and license checks carry negative consequences.
The idea, which dates back decades through the “War on Drugs,” was to use every opportunity to hassle the bad guys and make life as difficult as possible for people believed to be involved in illegal activity.
But now Baumgartner said that researchers are beginning to see how traffic stops and other negative interactions with police “drive down community trust,” particularly in minority communities.
Though African-Americans make up a less than a third of the city's driving-age residents, they are pulled over more frequently, receive more tickets, and are twice as likely to be searched as whites during a road side stop, according to Baumgartner’s study of more than 1.3 million traffic stops by CMPD from 2002 to 2013.
Charlotte is “not some kind of crazy, racial tinderbox,” he said. “The lesson is that it can happen anywhere, and I think we all have to come to terms with the fact that there are people who really don’t understand or appreciate the presence of police, and that’s astounding to millions of white Americans.”
‘The elephant in the room’
In addition to the jobs program, City Council approved a plan Monday that would change the city’s affordable housing goal to build 5,000 units over three years instead of five years. Construction would include “workforce housing” aimed at people making 60 percent of area median income or about $40,000 a year for a family of four.
The plan would also invest $1 million to increase job opportunities for youth or people with barriers to employment.
Some council members acknowledged the move is insufficient to solve the problems highlighted by the shooting protests, but called it positive first step.
“The elephant in the room is race,” Councilman Al Austin said. “We have got to get to the bottom it.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that it is difficult to see areas where the council could have a direct impact.
Activists have suggested the city grant more authority to the Citizens Review Board, which was created in 1997 to restore public confidence following a string of shootings of African Americans by white officers.
Critics charge the 11-member panel has become a rubber stamp for CMPD disciplinary decisions instead of an independent group weighing evidence from misconduct cases. The board can review CMPD’s investigative file and question the officer against whom the compliant is lodged.
But the panel has no authority to independently investigate cases and lacks subpoena power needed to compel witnesses to testify. One result is the board has ruled against citizen in almost every case without a hearing.
Putney said CMPD is exploring the idea of granting the panel subpoena power after conferring with community groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP. City officials, however, say state legislative action may be necessary to enact a change.
Jason Huber, a professor at the Charlotte School of Law who has studied the board, said granting the Citizens Review Board subpoena power would represent a step forward for police accountability.
But Huber said citizens would still face an uphill challenge trying to win their appeals because the board doesn’t have the ability to investigate cases independently. As of now, he said, CMPD goes into process represented by city attorneys, access to all documents related to the case and the ability to follow up with Internal Affairs.
Citizens would enjoy none of those advantages even if the board is granted subpoena power, Huber said.
“People aren’t that familiar with the Citizens Review Board because for the longest time citizens didn’t prevail,” he said. “The community just lacks confidence in the process.”
Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027, @FrederickClasen