How Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are missing chance to build public trust

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney wants to rebuild public trust in his agency after Lamont Scott’s death.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney wants to rebuild public trust in his agency after Lamont Scott’s death. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

We have frequently disagreed with Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts concerning the city’s handling of the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and the ensuing unrest.

We heartily agree, however, with her call for Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to stop conducting criminal investigations of its own officers’ shootings.

As Observer reporters Ames Alexander and Fred Clasen Kelly recently reported, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is the only one in North Carolina that generally investigates its own officers’ shootings, absent a request from victims’ relatives for an outside probe.

That triggers a handover to the State Bureau of Investigation, which in recent years has conducted about a third of CMPD’s fatal shooting investigations.

No doubt CMPD feels certain it can fairly investigate its own officers, but why in this era of heightened mistrust of police would you ignore the clear fact that many citizens simply don’t share that belief?

CMPD’s supporters suggest the SBI doesn’t have as much investigative manpower stationed in Charlotte as CMPD. But SBI Director Robert Schurmeier, a former deputy chief of investigations for CMPD, says the state agency can handle it.

The editorial board asked CMPD leaders Monday whether there’s merit in the outside investigations idea. They responded by pointing to the 2007 state law that allows relatives of those shot by police to request outside probes.

That perfunctory response stands in contrast to Chief Kerr Putney’s impassioned pleas for greater engagement and dialogue between his agency and the public. At a Charlotte City Council committee meeting last week, he urged citizens to work with CMPD to address concerns raised by Scott’s killing.

“Come to the table. Help us get this work done,” he said. “We’re ready as an organization to do this.”

Is it? We aren’t so sure.

Real change, and real trust, will require a recognition by CMPD’s leaders and officers that they must open themselves to new perspectives and potential changes they might find uncomfortable.

Putney and former chief Rodney Monroe worked hard at building trust, but much of it unraveled amidst the Scott case and Putney’s initial reluctance to release the police videos.

You could see the disconnect between the police perspective and the public’s perspective when the chief told council members CMPD needs citizens to comply with lawful commands in order to de-escalate tense encounters.

Council member Al Austin replied that some citizens interpret “comply” as “submit” – even if they’ve done nothing wrong.

Citizens should follow lawful police commands. But compliance and trust go hand in hand.

Results from an independent review of the Scott case and of CMPD’s policies are months away. Showing openness to the outside investigations idea would be one way to help boost trust right now.