Politics & Government

Will crime affect your vote in the Charlotte mayor’s race? These candidates hope so

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, right, with Mayor Jennifer Roberts during a news conference at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters last September.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, right, with Mayor Jennifer Roberts during a news conference at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters last September. TNS

Three days after the latest in a flurry of homicides, Republican Kenny Smith ran an ad on social media saying “crime in Charlotte is out of control.”

But it’s not just the ad that has made public safety one of the top issues of this year’s mayoral race.

The city’s 37th and 38th murders of the year came amid a spike in other crimes and against a backdrop of simmering disaffection stemming from last fall’s riots and the 2015 trial of police officer Randall Kerrick on charges of killing an unarmed African-American.

Smith’s ad targeted Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who he said “is failing us.”

“Jennifer Roberts’ tenure as mayor,” Smith, a City Council member, says in the ads, “has made us less safe.”

“Kenny Smith is late to the party,” said state Sen. Joel Ford, one of three Democratic mayoral candidates. He unveiled his own crime-fighting plan in April.

Roberts and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles, who’s also running, say they’re making safety a priority.

The irony, according to Michael Turner, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology, is that crime is down in Charlotte and across the country by historical standards.

“Anybody 65 or younger has never been safer in their adult lives – ever,” he said.

In 2014, the homicide rate in Charlotte-Mecklenburg reached a low of 5.5 people per 100,000, Turner said. In 1993 it was 28.9 per 100,000. That translated to 129 murders in the city.

Though crime has risen since 2014, it remains low relative to what it was even two decades ago. But that doesn’t mitigate the concern.

“The way people feel about being safe is what our real measure is,” said Lyles.

Former GOP Mayor Richard Vinroot served in 1993 when the murder rate spiked. He still worries. “I read almost every day about crime in our city,” he said. “It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Statistics from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department back up the growing concern:

▪ In the first quarter of the year, homicides were up 91 percent from the year before.

▪ Robberies were up 20 percent, to 513.

▪ Aggravated assaults were up 12.4 percent, to 1,051.

The Black Political Caucus hosted a mayoral debate in May at Reeder Memorial Baptist Church. Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford spoke about several topics to a full house of voters.

More officers

City Manager Marcus Jones’ proposed budget calls for hiring an additional 62 officers, which would bring the two-year total to 125. Police and firefighters are slated to receive raises this year just like regular city employees. But some officers have said the city needs larger increases to the public safety pay plan to remain competitive with other cities.

The council has not taken a final vote on that budget, but Smith, Lyles and Roberts have signaled support. On CMPD issues, there has been little difference between the three.

In January 2016, Chief Kerr Putney told council he needed 125 new officers and 80 additional support staff. He also said CMPD needed higher salaries to retain officers.

Putney eventually asked for 63 officers, which he said was the most he could train in one year. The council unanimously supported the request. Though Roberts doesn’t vote, she supported the decision. Then city manager Ron Carlee did not recommend a change in salaries.

Council members, including Smith, did not push for higher salaries for public safety employees, an increase that might have forced higher property taxes. Smith said if elected, he would make higher police pay a priority.

The issue of increasing pay has been a CMPD concern for nearly two years.

But the community safety committee – of which Smith is a member – has not worked on changing the police and firefighters pay plan during that time.

Roberts touted her inclusion of family leave benefits in the spending proposal. “I was the only candidate to fight for – and win – a new benefit for our officers in the city budget,” she said in a statement.

Lyles said she would focus on expanding police presence and working to get young people into job programs.

Ford, a former small business owner, agreed that jobs are a key to reducing crime.

“We can’t police our way out of this current crime wave,” he said. “We’ve got to create some jobs and I’m the only one who’s done that.”

Police concerns

Earlier this year, members of the Fraternal Order of Police criticized council members for what they said was a lack of support. One problem, they said, was not having a competitive pay with other departments.

They also said there was a lack of support after the riots and protests that followed last fall’s fatal police shooting of Keith Scott. At a council meeting, one officer said the city was suffering from the “Ferguson effect.” That’s a theory in which police nationwide are more tentative in doing their jobs because they are afraid of being second-guessed.

Smith and Ford have attacked Roberts for her actions after the Scott protests and riots.

Roberts initially supported the city’s position that body camera footage and dash camera footage of the shooting should not be released. But after withering criticism locally and nationally, the city released the footage four days after the shooting. Two days later, Roberts wrote an op-ed that said the city needed to be more transparent.

The City Council then wrote its own response, signed by Lyles and Smith, that gave its full support to CMPD. Their letter did not question the city’s decision to initially not release the footage.

The year before the Scott shooting, CMPD was also roiled by the trial of officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick, the white former police officer who fatally shot Jonathan Ferrell in 2013.

Kerrick’s 2015 trail on a voluntary manslaughter charge ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

Putney later said the Kerrick trial “nearly tore apart the department,” with some officers believing he had been unfairly charged.

But even after the trial ended and the City Council approved a settlement with Kerrick, Smith did not comment from the dais on the decision to charge him.

In an interview Friday, Smith said “there may have been a rush to judgment.”

“In a post-Ferguson world, the immediate concern was that the city was safe and secure,” Smith said. “We were worried about rhetoric that could be deemed inflammatory. I have always tried to show my support for the police.”

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs