Panel focuses on police-citizen relations

They started with a few of the worst cases: a 17-year-old in Durham who officials say shot himself in the back of a police car with a gun police missed during a search and a 13-year-old skipping school in California who was killed by a deputy who thought a toy gun was real.

Both events sparked animosity toward police and led to protests and rallies in their communities. And on Tuesday, leaders of municipalities dissected such events to discern best practices.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee mediated the panel discussion at the International City/County Management Association, which is meeting in Charlotte this week. Carlee was chief operating officer of the association before taking his job here.

Preventing isolated incidents of violence from escalating is a poignant issue among city and county leaders after recent violent protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown Jr., by a white officer, Darren Wilson.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Deputy Chief Kerr Putney, who was on the four-person panel, said police here have tried to give the public “as much information as we can” about troubling events as soon as possible. “We’re not going to have a body laying in the street and ... you have to wonder who that is, who shot him and what happened,” Putney said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have dealt with their own controversy after a police shooting. Last year, Jonathan Ferrell was shot by Officer Randall Kerrick as he sought help following a car wreck. Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter, but civil rights leaders held protests after the shooting, calling for a stronger charge and more police training. Ferrell’s shooting wasn’t mentioned during the panel discussion.

Milton Dohoney, assistant city manager for Phoenix, said timing was critical for city leaders because concerned residents will get information from traditional news sources or social media. “Within 24 hours of a use of deadly force (by police), we’re holding a press conference no matter what,” he said. “In the absence of that, we can just expect tensions to rise. If you’re silent, you’re asking for trouble.”

Panelists – and a few in the audience – noted that police need to build relationships with underrepresented or disenfranchised members of a community before a troubling event. “Before you have the shootings and situations like that,” Putney said, “you need to be dissecting the (police) work, looking for the cultural issues that are going to give you the red flags.”