Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney is working to repair a rift with officers angry over the department’s handling of Randall “Wes” Kerrick, the white officer accused of killing an unarmed black man.
Putney has spoken with officers since Judge Robert Ervin last week declared a mistrial. The jury deadlocked 8-4 to acquit the officer of voluntary manslaughter.
A Fraternal Order of Police leader, Kerrick’s attorney, a member of Charlotte City Council and others told the Observer that Putney is aiming to restore fractured relations between officers and commanders. Some officials believe a majority of officers disagree with top administrators about the shooting and believe Kerrick took reasonable action to protect himself.
Those officers accuse then-Chief Rodney Monroe and command staff of a rush to judgment on Kerrick and misleading them about his quick arrest. Investigations into officer-involved shootings and other use of force can take weeks or months. But CMPD arrested Kerrick less than a day after he shot Jonathan Ferrell in a northeast Mecklenburg County neighborhood in 2013.
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Complaints emerged when a dashcam video became public for the first time during the trial and produced divided opinions about whether the shooting was justified. Officers had been assured the footage would provide clear and convincing evidence Kerrick committed a crime, said Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina chapter of the FOP.
“Once you saw the evidence, you knew they (top CMPD officials) were not truthful,” said Hagler, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer who now heads law enforcement for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “This is going to be an interesting time for CMPD. Chief Putney has a difficult task. He has been dealt a tough hand by his predecessor.”
At a news conference Wednesday, attorneys for Kerrick said the case had made officers afraid to pull their guns or other weapons out of fear of being prosecuted. In an earlier interview, George Laughrun, one of the defense attorneys, said some officers were avoiding proactive police work by declining to perform “special” duties outside their assigned tasks.
Kerrick, he noted, volunteered to respond to a suspected home invasion before he encountered Ferrell. “Officers are (now) thinking twice about getting involved,” Laughrun said.
A spokesman for CMPD declined to answer questions, except to confirm Putney has had multiple conversations with officers about the case.
In an email to officers that CMPD released Saturday, Putney acknowledged some officers view the case differently. Putney has said the investigation was thorough and the department took the proper action.
“There are differing opinions surrounding the events of that night and our subsequent response,” Putney said in the e-mail. “I understand and respect each of your opinions and your right to express them. Our commitment and service to each other and to the community will not end after one incident, nor should it.”
Charlotte City Council member Claire Fallon said she had heard from officers who are upset with the department’s arrest of Kerrick. The officers, she said, believe the department acted too quickly. She doesn’t believe officers are carrying out their jobs differently but acknowledges some may be treading more cautiously.
“They are unhappy because they do not feel they were backed up” by department leaders, Fallon said. “They feel (Kerrick) was scapegoated. They feel he was sacrificed.”
Fallon, who chairs the council’s Community Safety Committee, said department leaders failed to conduct a complete investigation before arresting Kerrick.
“The process was not followed,” Fallon said. “There is due process. This country was built on due process.”
Trying to quell the anger
Kerrick’s arrest has been a divisive issue within CMPD from the start.
On Sept. 14, 2013, Ferrell wrecked his fiancee’s car after giving a friend a ride home. Ferrell, 24, went to a nearby home, where his family’s attorneys say he was apparently seeking help. The woman inside called 911, saying an unknown man was pounding on her door. Kerrick was one of three officers who rushed to the scene.
Kerrick shot Ferrell 10 times, testifying in court that he feared for his life.
Some have praised former Chief Monroe, who recently retired, for moving quickly to charge Kerrick and accepting that the department was responsible for Ferrell’s death. They said his actions helped to head off the violent protests that followed police shootings in other cities.
But internally, commanders met with officers to quell anger among rank-and-file officers over the timing of his arrest.
Hagler, the FOP leader, said officers question how the department could complete a complicated investigation in such a short time.
Commanders calmed officers by telling them the dashcam video showed Ferrell did not charge at Kerrick and that Ferrell’s hands were in the air, Hagler said. They also told officers that when Kerrick was questioned by investigators, he could not articulate why he used lethal force instead of other means to subdue Ferrell, Hagler said.
When the video was made public, Hagler said, some officers were outraged. They believe Kerrick followed training he received from the department, he said.
Hagler predicted that Putney’s efforts to reach out to officers would be unproductive unless he was willing to apologize for how Kerrick’s case was investigated.
Hagler and Laughrun, the attorney for Kerrick, both praised Putney as a strong leader. But they said he faces an uphill climb trying to restore trust among officers after starting as chief less than two months ago.
“He knew what he was getting into,” Laughrun said. “He’s embraced it, but it’s a mess he’s got to clean up.”
Trusting the chief
State prosecutors have not said whether they will retry Kerrick, 29. Ferrell’s family has said they want the state to put the officer on trial again.
Charles Monnett, an attorney who represented the Ferrell family in a civil lawsuit that was settled out of court for $2.25 million, said he is afraid the hung jury and reaction from officers reduce the chance for meaningful reforms. He said the shooting is clearly unjustified and the case showed improvements in training and other areas are needed.
“My fear is that because of what happened at the trial, the risk of this happening again has been raised,” Monnett said.
City council member John Autry said he is confident that Putney will take whatever steps are necessary to move the department past the trial.
“The chief is more than prepared to handle any blowback,” Autry said. “I’ll put my trust in the chief.”
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