RNC 2020

Safety versus privacy: Should CMPD disclose its $50 million spending plan for RNC 2020?

With organizers bracing for massive protests, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney says he opposes a proposal that would force his department to publicly disclose how it will spend millions of dollars leading up to the Republican National Convention in 2020, according to a memo obtained by the Observer.

SAFE Coalition NC, a local social justice group, is lobbying the Charlotte City Council to pass measures that would require CMPD to reveal expenditures from an anticipated $50 million federal grant for the RNC. The idea has gained support from City Council member LaWana Mayfield and the American Civil Liberties Union and sparked debate that pits public safety versus privacy rights.

In a memo to City Manager Marcus Jones dated Aug. 20, Putney said divulging how CMPD spends the money would jeopardize safety plans. He said the department would make a comprehensive accounting of expenditures public after the RNC has concluded, according to the memo.

“Prematurely disclosing the plans for use of federal grant funds would adversely impact the integrity of the safety plan,” Putney wrote.

In recent days, Mayfield and council member Ed Driggs have debated Putney’s stance in a volley of emails between city leaders and activists.

Mayfield accused some other council members of hypocrisy. She said officials have promised the public transparency.

“If you all continue to stand blindly by while CMPD makes purchases of items that can used negatively in our community YOU are responsible,” Mayfield wrote in a Sept. 20 email. “Asking for all items to come before Council to be voted on whether approved or denied is not unreasonable. The issue is making sure the community is aware of how tax dollars are spent.”

Driggs condemned the proposal, saying it reflects unwarranted suspicion and negativity about police.

“CMPD is charged with keeping our community safe, they can’t be held accountable for our safety if we tie their hands when it comes to the equipment they need,” Driggs wrote in a Sept. 21 email. “It is also unreasonable to expect them to make things easy for potential troublemakers by communicating details of their plans and capabilities to the whole world.”

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Kerr Putney, chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Observer file photo

Past secrecy

When Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012, officials attempted to keep nearly all security details secret prior to the convention, including what color to paint a new police command center and a squabble between local and federal authorities over when to hold a meeting, according to an Observer report in March 2012.

City and federal government leaders revealed information about the budget and other operations in March 2013, months after the DNC ended.

Charlotte bought avionics equipment for police helicopters, new uniforms, riot gear and surveillance cameras positioned mostly around uptown, the Observer reported in July 2016.

But when Cleveland hosted the 2016 Republican National Convention, the city publicly disclosed that it was seeking bids for police equipment and supplies, including riot gear, according to the city’s website.

Robert Dawkins, state organizer for the SAFE Coalition, said his group is worried because under current rules the city manager can approve purchases up to $100,000 without approval from city council or public discussion. City leaders this year have discussed raising that amount to $500,000 to increase efficiency.

Dawkins noted that an Observer investigation in 2014 found that CMPD conducted secret surveillance of cellphones with a device it purchased known as a StingRay. The technology allows police to collect serial numbers, locations and other information about nearby phones, laptop computers and tablets that connect to cellular networks for both suspects and innocent bystanders.

At the time, City Council members said they were unaware CMPD used such military-grade equipment, which the federal government traditionally uses to monitor terrorists.

“This council does not have the political will to hold the department to any kind of standard and believes that transparency and accountability should be left to the department to police itself,” Dawkins wrote in a Sept. 21 email to the city. “The people who don’t know are the residents of Charlotte (specifically communities of color) who will be victimized by this equipment for years to come after the RNC Convention is long gone.”

Proposed rules

The federal government typically provides $50 million to cities hosting the Democratic and Republican conventions to provide security.

Predictions of widespread violent protest in the past have proven false, including the 2012 DNC.

But some public officials and activists in Charlotte say 2020 could be different given that past events for President Donald Trump have been subject to altercations between his supporters and detractors.

Under the proposal from the SAFE Coalition, CMPD purchases of military-grade equipment, surveillance devices and crowd-control technology would require 30 days advance notice to the public, an opportunity for public comment and city council approval.

That would include items like grenade launchers, mine resistant armored vehicles, long-range listening devices, tear gas and electronic body scanners.

Driggs, the city council member, said in an email that CMPD is already held to high standards.

“I hope that we will never lose sight of the important role our officers play in our society, often at great risk to themselves,” he wrote.

But Susanna Birdsong, senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said other cities such as Nashville and Oakland, Calif., have already adopted similar measures.

“This is far from unprecedented,” Birdsong said in a Sept. 23 email to Charlotte leaders. “When local governments are deciding how to spend their limited public safety resources, such as funding surveillance technologies, the public has a right to question whether the proposed expenditure is truly the most effective way to make their communities safer and stronger.”

Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027; @fred_ckelly