Crime

Stiff sanctions rare for CMPD officers after shootings

The city of Charlotte has paid $3.4 million to families in settlements over the last decade in cases involving five police shootings.
The city of Charlotte has paid $3.4 million to families in settlements over the last decade in cases involving five police shootings. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Since 2005, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers have shot and killed 15 people and wounded 25 others.

Many of the shootings were clearly justified.

But a record-high settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit with the family of an unarmed man killed in 2013 has raised questions about how CMPD investigates shootings and other uses of force.

67 shootings

15deaths

25 injuries Since 2005

The city has paid $3.4 million to families in settlements over the last decade in cases involving five shootings.

Despite the payments, which meant the cases never went to court, Charlotte officers have rarely been suspended or fired for their use of deadly force.

The Observer obtained city documents listing current and former CMPD officers involved in 67 shootings since 2005. Only one police officer was fired. Another was suspended for two days.

A third officer, Randall “Wes” Kerrick, goes on trial for manslaughter next week in the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick is the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer charged with an on-duty shooting in more than 30 years.

If you have 100 shootings, sooner or later some of them are going to be questionable. Theoretically, they could all be justified, but that would defy human nature.

Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who represented the Ferrell family

In May, city officials agreed to pay $2.25 million to Ferrell’s family to settle the wrongful-death and civil rights lawsuit.

Testimony in the suit has remained secret, but typically in such cases the plaintiffs’ lawyers attempt to establish that the police department has a culture of excessive force through flaws in training, hiring and discipline. Attorneys in some cases have questioned how departments responded following officer-involved shootings or other uses of force.

The Observer is attempting to obtain depositions from the Ferrell civil lawsuit. A state judge has ruled the records are public, but the documents have yet to be released.

Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who represented the Ferrell family, said he raised disciplinary issues during the case.

“If you have 100 shootings, sooner or later some of them are going to be questionable,” Monnett said. “Theoretically, they could all be justified, but that would defy human nature.”

Law enforcement experts and legal scholars interviewed by the Observer say that discipline issues can create a culture of unnecessary and excessive force within a police agency.

“Officers have a tremendous amount of discretion, and if the department isn’t holding them accountable, there is no check on that discretion,” said Matt Barge, deputy director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which advises police departments.

Among the victims of CMPD shootings since 2007: a 15-year-old boy wounded as he was coming to the aid of his injured mother; a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound man fatally shot during a standoff; and a 41-year-old cellphone tower worker killed on the job.

The city agreed to settle lawsuits filed in all three cases, but the officers involved were not suspended or fired.

City attorney Robert Hagemann said the settlements are not necessarily an acknowledgment of liability. The agreements usually contain language in which the city does not admit fault, Hagemann said.

You’re asking police to hold themselves accountable. It is very hard to do. (Police) are going to back their fellow officers in any use of force. They just imagine themselves in the same situation.

Kenneth Williams, an expert on police misconduct

It is difficult to compare CMPD’s discipline record with other large police forces because there is no reliable national data on officer-involved shootings. U.S. police departments make their own rules and policies.

But some national observers say it’s unlikely that CMPD officers acted without error in dozens of violent confrontations that ended in shootings.

Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, said the U.S. Department of Justice questions police agencies that discipline officers so few times. Since 2005, city records show CMPD suspended or fired officers about 3 percent of the time after shootings.

“The DOJ looks skeptically on clearance rates in the mid- and upper 90s, understanding that officers do make mistakes,” Stoughton said. “It’s something that gets an eyebrow raised.”

CMPD defends ‘accountability’

Kerrick’s attorneys have attacked the civil case settlement, saying it is more proof of the city’s “rush to judgment,” which began with the 29-year-old officer’s quick arrest after the shooting.

Investigations into the police department’s use of force can sometimes take weeks or months. CMPD arrested Kerrick less than a day after he shot Ferrell on a dark road in the Reedy Creek neighborhood. His attorneys say city officials treated Kerrick differently because they fear the kind of violence that erupted in other cities after police shootings.

Some observers praised former police Chief Rodney Monroe, who recently retired, for moving decisively to charge Kerrick and accepting that the department was responsible for Ferrell’s death. They compare the handling of Ferrell’s death with the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. No charges were filed against the officer who shot Brown, and violent protests followed.

CMPD officials declined to answer questions about the Kerrick investigation, saying they don’t want to be viewed as trying to influence the upcoming trial.

But they defended the department’s disciplinary decisions following previous shootings. Officers are suspended or fired based on the facts, officials said.

“Accountability is a priority for us,” said Maj. Sherie Pearsall, who leads CMPD’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which houses the Internal Affairs Bureau. “I think we do an excellent job.”

While officers have rarely been suspended or terminated after shootings, they could have received other corrective action. That can include re-training and counseling, she said. That information is not public record under North Carolina law.

“There may be tactical errors that lead to a written reprimand,” Pearsall said. “That doesn’t mean that force wasn’t justified.”

10 years, 2 disciplined

The Observer’s review of CMPD documents found:

▪ Officers were not suspended or fired in 60 of the 67 shootings since 2005. One officer was fired, one resigned, and another was suspended for two days. Decisions in four cases, including Kerrick’s, are pending. No CMPD officer has been fired after an on-duty shooting since 2008.

Officials determined that Officer Jenny Curlee was not justified in shooting an unarmed man at a Central Avenue gas station. The man was in the driver’s seat of a parked car when he did not comply with a command to take the keys from the ignition, police said at the time. Instead, authorities said, he reached to his right side near the center console and Curlee shot him in the arm and chest.

▪ The only CMPD officer who was suspended is Gerson Herrera, who was suspended for two days in 2005 after firing shots at a moving vehicle. CMPD forbids officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless deadly force is being used against the officer or another person and no other option is available.

▪ At least five officers have been involved in two or more shootings. None has been suspended or fired. That includes Officer Anthony Holzhauer, who has fatally shot three people in the last five years, including 20-year-old Janisha Fonville on Feb. 18. CMPD has yet to decide if Holzhauer will be disciplined in the Fonville case.

A police bias?

Experts said it appears that CMPD – like most other U.S. police agencies – is hesitant to discipline officers without overwhelming evidence the shooting victim posed no threat to the officer or bystanders.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and a former police officer, said it is difficult for police administrators to second-guess officers making life-and-death decisions.

“Who could pass judgment?” O’Donnell asked. “If there is no malice or racial animus, it’s difficult to say, ‘OK, we know better than the cop.”

Kenneth Williams, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston and an expert on police misconduct, said it is implausible that CMPD officers only violated department policies just twice in 67 shootings.

“You’re asking police to hold themselves accountable,” Williams said. “It is very hard to do. (Police) are going to back their fellow officers in any use of force. They just imagine themselves in the same situation. They have an inherent interest in protecting themselves.”

A former CMPD senior commander, who asked that his name be withheld, said the department has tried to make the shooting review process more independent than in the past, but it still tilts in favor of officers.

At one time, CMPD leaders who supervised the officer involved in the shooting would determine whether the use of force was proper. It was known as a chain of command review.

Under Monroe, the department created a shooting review board that examines all cases. Monroe was trying to eliminate perceptions among officers that favoritism played a role in disciplinary decisions, the former commander said. It was a significant change from his predecessor, Darrel Stephens.

“The pendulum was swinging toward the officer until the last couple of years,” he said.

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

Payouts for shootings

▪ Anthony Wayne Furr - Furr, 41, was working on a cellphone tower around 1 a.m. in 2006. Someone reported Furr’s AFL Network Services truck as a suspicious vehicle. When told not to move, police said Furr, who was wearing a uniform, pulled a gun and did not obey commands . Police said Officer Anthony Payne fired shots as Furr was moving toward him with the gun in his hand. In 2014, the city paid $700,000 to Furr’s estate.

More payouts for shootings

▪ Jeffery Green – In October 2010, Valinda Streater was stabbed by her former boyfriend before she fled into the street. Jeffery Green, age 15 at the time, carried a knife and rushed to help her. Streater screamed for police not to shoot her son. While other officers on the scene heard her plea, Officer Matthew Wilson testified that he did not. During a confrontation, Wilson shot Green. Police said Green did not comply with multiple commands to drop the weapon. In 2014, the city paid $115,000 to settle a lawsuit.

▪ Alexander Ehrenburg – In May 2005, an officer shot and killed Ehrenburg, 67. A caller had asked police to check on Ehrenburg, a Russian immigrant. When no one answered the door at Ehrenburg’s east Charlotte home, firefighters forced their way in..During the standoff, Ehrenburg refused to put his handgun down, police said. Ehrenburg, who did not fire, was shot in the abdomen. In 2007, the city paid $275,000 to settle his widow’s lawsuit.

How CMPD conducts internal investigations

CMPD policy and state law allow officers to use deadly force to protect themselves and others from imminent threats of serious bodily harm or death.

When a CMPD officer fires a gun in the line of duty, the Internal Affairs Bureau looks into whether the use of force followed department policy.

Sound internal investigations can identify misconduct, help officers correct mistakes and bolster public confidence in the criminal justice system, experts say.

A shooting review board uses the findings from the internal investigation to analyze whether the officer took proper action. The panel is comprised of a major, two captains, a firearms training sergeant and a representative from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations office. The board makes a recommendation to the police chief, who makes the decision on discipline.

If the chief rules that an officer should be fired, the case is automatically referred to the Civil Service Board.

The panel, whose members are appointed by the mayor and City Council, hears officer-initiated appeals of disciplinary actions such as suspensions, demotions and firings.

Fred Clasen-Kelly

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments