Crime & Courts

New CMPD de-escalation rule not ‘perfect’ but step toward better policing, chief says

As part of an attempt to reduce the use of deadly force, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has revised a key policy, emphasizing officers have a duty to attempt defusing potentially violent situations through de-escalation.

CMPD on Wednesday unveiled reforms in the department’s use of force policy, which governs when and how law enforcement officers are allowed to use their gun, Taser or other types of weapons.

The change turns de-escalation — a longtime policing tactic used by CMPD and law enforcement agencies around the nation — into a specific written policy that could be enforced if an internal investigation shows an officer missed opportunities to avoid using force.

Researchers who study law enforcement and local activists say CMPD’s policy move is significant because it sends a message that the department is serious about reducing the number of violent encounters between officers and citizens.

In a press conference, CMPD Chief Kerr Putney said the department tried to address concerns from some residents about police use of force, while acknowledging that officers face an inherently dangerous job.

Putney acknowledged the policy is imperfect and could change further, but the chief called it a “pivotal” moment for the department.

“Debate is what got us here,” Putney said. “This is not a one-shot deal ... It’s a living, breathing document.”

“I wish I could tell you we got it perfect this time — I’m sure we did not,” he said.

Police and race

The change in CMPD’s policy comes as the deaths of African Americans and other minorities at the hands of police has sparked debate around the country.

CMPD has faced particularly intense scrutiny over officer use of force since the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in 2016. The killing led to days of protest and calls for reforms.

A 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that arose from a case involving an officer’s use of force in Charlotte, dictates that a police officer is permitted to legally use force, including deadly force, if a “suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of officers or others.” That standard also takes into account whether a person is resisting arrest or attempting to flee.

CMPD’s new policy does not change the threshold for when a police officer is considered legally justified in shooting and killing someone.

But the change in the department’s written policy signals to officers that failing to use de-escalation tactics could mean consequences, said Kenneth Williams, a professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, who studies police use of force.

“When something is written down, people take it more seriously,” Williams said. “The department is sending an important message.”

For many years, CMPD and departments around the country have trained officers in de-escalation techniques, including speaking slowly and calmly, taking cover and buying time to gain the person’s cooperation.

CMPD’s previous policy encouraged officers to use de-escalation tactics if it was possible.

The new policy is similar, but makes it more explicit that officers are expected to try to defuse potentially violent situation peacefully. The department also changed the name of the policy — from use of force to “Response to Resistance.”

“A review of an officer’s application of control (measures) requires balancing the legitimate need for officers to apply control ..... against the right of the subject to be free from excessive application(s) of control,” the policy states.

CMPD appears to be following a recent national trend that has seen police departments in major cities embrace de-escalation strategies even more than in the past, said Darrel Stephens, a former Charlotte police chief and former executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Stephens said it is likely that some CMPD officers will be concerned about the change, but for most it will not come as a surprise.

“This has been really emphasized in the last five years,” Stephens said.

Local police union president Mark Michalec said he has heard no complaints from officers about the policy change.

Michalec said he had not read the wording of the new rules, but doesn’t believe it will impact officers much. CMPD training already emphasizes de-escalation, he said.

“It doesn’t sound like a big change,” Michalec said. “It sounds like everything we’re using.”

Also Wednesday, CMPD released a video internally to its police force explaining the policy changes. All officers wil be required to read the revised policy and sign off that they understand the changes.

Community input

Chief Kerr Putney and other top CMPD officials have spent the last 18 months working on the changes announced Wednesday, officials say. That process included getting input from key groups like the Charlotte Citizens Review Board, the NC Safe Coalition and the NAACP as well as CMPD’s internal advisory committee. Putney also met with community members who serve on his external advisory group.

The new policy gives specific examples of when use of force might be necessary during an arrest or investigation. Part of the policy revision includes specific requirements — similar to existing CMPD training — that officers attempt to use “time, distance and cover” tactics when faced with a potentially violent situation.

But in situations where officers are facing a person with a gun or knife, Putney has said repeatedly, de-escalation is difficult.

“It’s hard to de-escalate when you don’t get communication and cooperation,” he said at an April press conference following the death of Danquirs Franklin, a man who appeared to be lowering a gun toward the ground when he was shot and killed by a CMPD officer.

And on Wednesday, he again said “A gun is a game-changer.”

The new policy and expectations of de-escalation, Putney said, “does not overcome the threat of an armed encounter.”

Already in 2019, he said, CMPD officers have been in nearly 8,000 “armed encounters.”

“In all but three we managed to successfully de-escalate,” he said. “But it’s not perfect — and for this city, it’s not good enough.”

Local activists who attended Wednesday’s press conference said they needed more time review all of the changes to CMPD’s policy.

Robert Dawkins, a longtime community organizer, said he was pleased with the new emphasis on de-escalation.

“Now that it is in writing, I can go to them and say look, ‘the officer didn’t do everything they could,’” Dawkins said. “Now, I can hold them accountable to a written policy.”

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Anna Douglas is an investigative reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Previously, she worked as a local news reporter for The (Rock Hill) Herald and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., for McClatchy. Anna is a past recipient of the South Carolina Press Association’s Journalist of the Year award and the Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists’ Outstanding Journalism Award. She’s a South Carolina native, a graduate of Winthrop University, and a past fellow of the Dori Maynard Diversity Leadership Program, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Anna has lived in Charlotte since May 2017.
Fred Clasen-Kelly covers government accountability for The Charlotte Observer, with a focus on social justice. He has worked in Charlotte more than a decade reporting on affordable housing, criminal justice and other issues. He previously worked at the Indianapolis Star.