Police made mistakes in fatal Burger King shooting, activists say
The shooting death of Danquirs Franklin by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police could cost the city more than this week’s social turmoil, based on past payouts in lawsuits following police shootings.
The city has agreed or been directed by juries to pay as little as $100,000 to more than $2 million after officers shot civilians in recent years. Two lawsuits, including one filed after the 2016 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, which sparked violent protests in Charlotte, are still before the courts.
Prosecutors in criminal cases have to prove that a law was broken beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s rare for police officers involved in shootings to be charged. Plaintiffs in civil trials have to argue only that the greater weight of evidence shows their claims to be true.
“The question in a lawsuit is the question in the community right now: Was the officer’s action appropriate?” said Luke Largess, a Charlotte civil rights lawyer who has won settlements in police misconduct cases. “The standard in court is the reasonableness of the officer’s action.”
Civil cases are hard to win in court, attorneys say, in part because of the legal immunity granted law enforcement officers and the government that employs them. But it’s also because of the wide latitude officers are given to carry out their risky jobs.
“There is, I think, an in-built bias that police officers are charged with a very serious and dangerous job of protecting citizens and they should get the benefit of the doubt,” said Robert Zaytoun, a Raleigh lawyer whose firm represents plaintiffs in police shootings in Wake and Harnett counties.
“It’s a test of the reasonableness of the officer’s conduct and his need to protect himself, versus the need of a citizen to be free from unreasonable and excessive or undue force in his encounter with the officer.”
Federal claims in police shootings are often filed under an 1871 law that lets citizens sue the government for violating their civil rights, such as by using excessive force. Wrongful death claims brought under state law seek to prove that the officer was negligent in performing his or her duties, such as by not following training.
Charles Monnett, the Charlotte lawyer who represents Scott’s family, said “we’re certainly going to be taking a look at” police training in that case. Monnett expects training will again be an issue in Franklin’s death.
A wrongful death lawsuit against the city and a CMPD officer over Scott’s death claims the police needlessly escalated tensions before the shooting. Shot were fired after officers ordered Scott to get out of his car after observing him with what appeared to be marijuana and a handgun. Officer Brentley Vinson was cleared of wrongdoing in an internal investigation by CMPD and by the district attorney.
In the Franklin case, body camera video released Monday shows CMPD Officer Wende Kerle and another officer ordering Franklin to put down a gun more than 15 times in the roughly 40 seconds before he was shot at a westside Burger King on March 25.
“If I was the city, I would certainly want to be looking at do we have the right policies and procedures in place,” Monnett said. “Just yelling at somebody, ‘Drop the gun, drop the gun, drop the gun’ is not necessarily the best way to communicate with someone who’s under a lot of stress and fear.”
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney, speaking at a Tuesday morning meeting, wouldn’t say whether he believes the Franklin shooting was justified. But he acknowledged that video of the incident was troubling.
“What I’d like to see is, ‘Show me your hands, let me see your palms. OK, now this is what I need you to do,’ ” Putney said. “That would be the ideal.”
The growing use of video from officer-worn or dashboard-mounted cameras can make it easier to understand what happened in shootings, Largess said, in some cases because they show that officers’ accounts weren’t accurate.
In a 2015 case, a North Charleston, S.C., officer claimed he shot a suspect because he feared for his life. Video showed the man running away at the time he was shot. Officer Michael Slager later pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“Cameras end up being witnesses that make cases more viable,” Largess said.
Here’s what happened after other CMPD shootings in recent years.
- A Mecklenburg County jury awarded a $100,000 judgment last year to the family of a mentally ill Charlotte man who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2013. The jury had found negligence in the shooting of Spencer Mims III, who was shot after a brief confrontation with two CMPD officers on his front porch.
- In 2015, the city of Charlotte settled a lawsuit over the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell for $2.25 million. Later that year a jury deadlocked over whether police Officer Randall Kerrick, who was charged with voluntary manslaughter, used excessive force in firing 12 shots after Ferrell charged at him during a late-night encounter.
- The city agreed to a $115,000 settlement in 2014 with a Charlotte teenager, Jeffery Green, who was wounded in 2010 after a CMPD officer shot him twice after mistaking him for his mother’s attacker. Green, who was carrying a knife at the time, was actually coming to his mother’s aid.
- The city paid $700,000 in 2014 to the estate of Anthony Wayne Furr, who was working on a cellphone tower when he was fatally shot in 2006 after police were dispatched to a suspected break-in.
The widow of a motorist who was fatally shot by an undercover CPMD detective sued in Mecklenburg County Superior Court last August, claiming the officer acted negligently and that the city had failed to train him properly. The lawsuit seeks at least $100,000.
Police say the slain man, Josue Javier Diaz, had gotten out of his car with a handgun, apparently in an act of road rage. No charges were filed against the officer.