In the wake of the manslaughter trial of one of his officers, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney said he plans to change training so police learn the same policies and apply them the same way.
Putney’s comments came during a sweep of media interviews Thursday in which the new chief admitted that the trial of Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick revealed differing interpretations within his department over rules governing deadly force.
A judge ordered a mistrial in the monthlong case last Friday after a jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict on whether Kerrick used excessive force two years ago in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Ferrell was unarmed. Kerrick shot him 10 times. State prosecutors have not said whether they will seek a new trial.
Thursday, Kerrick attorney Michael Greene reiterated what he argued in court – that Kerrick was justified in using his gun. “Step by step by step, he performed as he was taught and trained to do,” Greene said.
Prosecutors said Kerrick panicked when Ferrell ran at him. They say Kerrick ignored a series of other measures he should have used besides firing his gun. Kerrick said he feared for his life.
A CMPD use-of-force expert testified that Kerrick was justified pulling his gun but that Ferrell did not pose a serious enough threat for deadly force. Kerrick and another officer also violated CMPD policy on the use of the video cameras in their cars. Kerrick turned his off after arriving at the scene. The other officer never turned his on.
Putney, two months into his new job, is a former CMPD trainer. As an assistant chief, he was at one time responsible for what was taught at the police academy. He said the policies are not inconsistent but were open to interpretations.
Asked if he was embarrassed that police appeared to make life-and-death decisions based on inconsistent criteria, he said, “Embarrassed? No. ... This is an organization that strives for perfection. When we fall short of that, we step back, assess, make improvements and move forward.”
Among the training changes Putney said he wants to put in place: more “scenario-based” instruction to prepare officers for real-life encounters, and additional hand-to-hand training to increase police options in subduing a subject. He said he has supported these additions long before the Ferrell shooting but is now in position to put them in place.
Charlotte attorney Charles Monnett, who represented Ferrell’s family in a lawsuit against police that drew a record $2.25 million settlement, said the case proves CMPD needs to improve training and its effort to identify problematic trends among officers – “before it costs somebody their life.”
In response to Putney’s comment that officers may be misinterpreting the rules, Monnett asked, “How do you get through training without having a clear understanding of what the training says?”
Monnett focused on the fact that Kerrick and another officer did not have their dashcams running. “Why not? Are they trying to hide something or do they truly not understand that they are supposed to use the cameras?” he said.
Putney and his department have defended CMPD training – saying that it exceeds state requirements for firearms and use of force.
According to CMPD’s own records, an overwhelming number of incidents involving police force involve white officers and black subjects. Kerrick is white; Ferrell was black.
Putney says his department is working with the University of Chicago to assess the data but does not believe that the numbers reveal implicit bias in his department. For example, he said, enforcement efforts in high-crime areas often place white officers in minority communities.
“Disparities don’t always equate to discrimination,” he said. “The vast majority of our officers are doing the work the way we want them to do it.”
Kerrick’s arrest and prosecution opened a rift in the department. Asked if that breach threatened public safety, Putney replied: “Absolutely not.”
“We’re a CMPD family,” he said. “We have differing opinions as any family does. But like any professional organization, we can set those opinions aside and do the work the city expects us to do.”
Staff writers Cleve Wootson Jr. and Frederick Kelly contributed.