A good first step for CMPD transparency

The Observer editorial board

Police Chief Kerr Putney gave mixed messages on transparency following the Keith Scott shooting.
Police Chief Kerr Putney gave mixed messages on transparency following the Keith Scott shooting. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, striving to rebuild trust with the community, announced Wednesday that it will offer three-day “transparency workshops” for citizens starting in January.

This is an encouraging step from a police department whose leaders didn’t exactly demonstrate an ironclad commitment to transparency in the days following the Keith Scott shooting. Chief Kerr Putney’s initial reluctance to release police video of the case dented his department’s credibility on questions of transparency – even earning a high-profile rebuke from Mayor Jennifer Roberts.

Topics to be covered at the workshops include officer training, body-worn cameras, use of force and police accountability measures. Why those subjects? Because those “are the ones that drive the most questions during community meetings, rallies and other conversations with citizens,” the department said in a news release.

Those conversations, many playing out before reporters and TV cameras, have revealed how deep the mistrust runs. Some activists, for instance, insisted that the police shot protester Justin Carr despite the fact that suspect Rayquan Borum was charged with the crime.

We recognize there must be limits to police transparency. If the police reveal every key detail of a case in public, they’ll be robbing potential defendants of the right to a fair trial before an impartial jury.

But, as we learned in the Scott case, police run a different risk when they shut the lid too tightly on evidence. Bystanders and relatives, empowered by social media, don’t mind sharing what they know – even if it later turns out to be incorrect.

That also harms the cause of justice. That’s why striking the right balance on transparency is so important. CMPD says the goal of the workshops is to strengthen community relationships, increase the community’s understanding of police work and equip citizens “to provide productive and meaningful input into how their police department functions.”

We hope that signals an understanding by CMPD’s leaders that these workshops in and of themselves aren’t enough to rebuild public trust. Citizens who have been criticizing the police don’t just want a dialogue, they want changes.

Relatives of people killed by CMPD officers told Charlotte’s City Council this month that they want stronger civilian oversight of officer-involved shootings and more transparency in investigations. The City Council should grant the Citizens Review Board the subpoena power it needs to compel witnesses to testify and to conduct its own probes independent of the police department’s internal affairs unit.

Julie Eiselt, head of the council’s community safety committee, told the editorial board that the panel will address that question at its meeting at noon Thursday. “We’re open to looking at all of that, as is the chief.”

That’s welcome news. We also look forward to hearing more about the work of the Police Foundation, an agency the city has brought in to review CMPD’s response to the Scott protests and improve its dialogue with the community.

CMPD has much work to do on transparency. But this is an encouraging start.