CMPD gets it right in gun-to-temple case – but only after prodding

The Observer editorial board

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney talks to reporters Thursday about a controversial use-of-force case.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney talks to reporters Thursday about a controversial use-of-force case. mmathis@charlotteobserver.com

In a post-Keith Scott environment, tensions remain between the community and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. So it was essential that Chief Kerr Putney say what he said Thursday about the police department’s latest controversial use of force to become public. It took him far too long to say it, though, and questions remain.

WBTV posted a 2016 video this week from the body camera of former Officer Jon Dunham in which he tackles a fleeing suspect and tries to apprehend him. The suspect, James Yarborough, is unarmed but resists.

Dunham pulls his pistol and holds it to Yarborough’s left temple.

“I will kill you! You understand?” Dunham yells at Yarborough.

After a few seconds, Dunham puts his gun away. Four officers need about four minutes to get Yarborough’s hands behind his back and cuffed.

While the other officers appear to have acted appropriately, Dunham’s putting the gun to the suspect’s head and threatening to kill him was extremely unprofessional.

Putney held a press conference Thursday to address the video.

“What I’m not here to do is defend everything that was done, because I’m not going to defend the indefensible,” Putney said. “I’m not going to defend some of the language. … Nor am I going to defend all of the tactics used, especially on behalf of Officer Dunham.”

Precisely right, and good for Putney for saying so. The public has become accustomed to police departments across the country defending their officers, sometimes when it’s not deserved. It was crucial that Putney did not do so in this case. CMPD needs to be pro-active in communicating such stances to the public in this era.

That said, the Dunham episode took place on March 26, 2016, more than a year ago. The case became public only because WBTV obtained a copy of the video – and not from the police department. If it hadn’t, the case would still be a secret. One got the strong feeling that Putney’s rebuke of Dunham came only because the officer’s actions were leaked. CMPD didn’t even tell the Davidson Police Department, where Dunham now works, about the case, WBTV reported. Contrary to what Putney told reporters Thursday, Dunham left CMPD for Davidson days after Internal Affairs had abjudicated the case (and just over a month after the incident).

All that makes CMPD’s rejection of Dunham’s behavior now ring a bit hollow.

Another aspect of the case: Yarborough has still not received a letter from CMPD about its findings, which is required before he can appeal the case to the Citizens Review Board. CMPD says that’s because it was following department policy of not providing such a letter for an investigation initiated internally, not at Yarborough’s request. Even so, police say they will now give Yarborough that paperwork. It is questionable whether that would have happened had the video never leaked.

Tufano said CMPD is making a “precedent setting” move by asking a judge to allow the department to release the video. Of course, it is hardly the model of transparency for police to seek permission to release a video that is already public via WBTV and the Observer.

CMPD’s tilt toward secrecy leaves the public unable to know whether Dunham’s inappropriate actions were extraordinary or commonplace. Are there other body-cam videos that show similar incidents – or worse? Putney says CMPD strives to show as much restraint as possible. That should apply to use of force, not communication with the public.