A friend from work lived in the area. That was why, in the early hours of Sept. 14, 2013, Jonathan Ferrell found himself in Bradfield Farms, a quiet community of single-family homes just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Ferrell had spent the evening at a bar on the northern edge of Charlotte with some co-workers from Best Buy, where he worked part time as a salesman, and had agreed to give one of them a ride home. Afterward, the 24-year-old Ferrell turned around the Toyota Camry he had borrowed from his fiancée and drove through the densely wooded neighborhood toward the freeway. It was after 2 a.m. and dark.
It was only a few minutes later that Ferrell, whose blood alcohol content would later be determined to be 0.06, below the legal limit, lost control of the car, drifting into the woods alongside Reedy Creek Road, then down an embankment and into a cluster of trees. The wreck was so severe that Ferrell likely had to kick his way out through the back window. He emerged with neither his shoes nor his phone, which was lost somewhere in the crumpled vehicle, and began to look around for someone he could ask for help.
He had walked about a quarter of a mile when he saw a house. He approached the front door and started knocking. It was now about 2:30 a.m.
The sound of Ferrell’s knocking awoke Sarah McCartney, a young woman who lived in the house with her husband and their infant. McCartney’s husband worked nights, so when Ferrell arrived at her doorstep, she and the baby were home alone. She opened the door expecting to see her husband. Instead, she saw someone she did not recognize, panicked, and shut the door as fast as she could.
McCartney had triggered her burglar alarm when she’d opened the door. Now she called 911. “I need help,” she told the dispatcher. “There’s a guy breaking in my front door. He’s trying to kick it down.” The man was black, she said, sobbing. He had a green shirt on, maybe khakis or jeans. The dispatcher told her that police were on their way.
Randall “Wes” Kerrick, a white 27-year-old who had worked in animal control before joining the police force in April 2011, heard the radio call about a breaking and entering in progress and volunteered to assist; two other officers—Adam Neal and Thornell Little—were sent to the scene as well. As Kerrick, Neal, and Little drove toward the house in separate cars, McCartney remained inside, frightened that the man on her property was trying to invade her home.
“Please hurry,” McCartney said. “He’s yelling. He’s yelling to turn off the alarm.”
Six and a half minutes into the call, McCartney noticed that the motion detector light outside her house had gone out, suggesting that the man who had approached her front door had left the premises. About four minutes later, Kerrick pulled up in his car. He was the first officer to arrive on the scene.
McCartney watched from her window as Kerrick looked around for the intruder. He didn’t see anyone, he would later testify, but heard noises—what sounded like screaming—coming from the direction of a nearby neighborhood pool. Little pulled up in his patrol car, and the two of them drove toward the noise. It was now 2:47 a.m.
As the officers turned onto the pool road, with Neal following behind them, Jonathan Ferrell emerged from the darkness. Kerrick and Little got out of their cars and watched for several seconds as their suspect walked toward them, the patrol car headlights illuminating his 6-foot, 225-pound frame. Little took out his Taser and aimed it at the approaching figure’s chest, causing bright red lights to appear on the front of his green T-shirt. Kerrick unholstered his firearm.
It was then that Ferrell started running. Perhaps he panicked at the sight of police officers with their weapons drawn. He might have been disoriented from the crash. Regardless, Ferrell ran—not away from the officers, but toward them. After passing Little, Ferrell seemed to move toward Kerrick, who was standing, his gun drawn, between his own patrol car and Little’s.
What happened next took about five seconds. Little fired his Taser but missed. Kerrick shouted, “Get on the ground!” three times in quick succession. When Ferrell did not comply, and continued to run, Kerrick opened fire.
By the time he was satisfied he had neutralized the threat, Kerrick had discharged 12 rounds, 10 of which had struck their target. Jonathan Ferrell, who had been unarmed, died on the scene.
* * *
The workday started early for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department on Sept. 14. Shortly after the shooting in Bradfield Farms was called in, an investigative team from the homicide unit was dispatched to collect physical evidence, including dashcam footage that had been recorded from inside Neal’s cruiser. “Officers were coming in, supervisors were coming in—the department was in a buzz,” said Garry McFadden, a retired CMPD detective who was called in to track down Ferrell’s family in Tallahassee, Florida, where Ferrell had played football for Florida A&M University.
At about 3 a.m., Rodney Monroe, CMPD’s first black chief, got out of bed and drove to the scene of the incident, as he did whenever there was a homicide in his jurisdiction. Monroe found Kerrick sitting in the back of an ambulance. After Neal and Little put up crime scene tape, and Kerrick was looked over by a medic, the three officers were brought to police headquarters to be interviewed by homicide detectives. Chief Monroe watched the officers give their sworn statements via video feed.
Neal told investigators that when he and his fellow officers came upon Ferrell on the pool road, he had appeared “amped up” and in a “zombie state.” Little went further, telling detectives that as he exited his vehicle, he saw Ferrell “yelling and screaming and going around in circles,” and that as Ferrell walked toward him, he was saying, “Shoot me, shoot me.” “It seemed like he might be high or something,” Little said during his interview. (A toxicology report would later show no sign of drugs in Ferrell’s system, according to the Charlotte Observer, though the medical examiner’s office did not test for marijuana.) When Ferrell started running, Little added, it looked like he was “going to knock [Kerrick] over, bumrush him or something.”
The interview with Kerrick began at about 7:20 a.m. and lasted more than an hour. He was visibly shaken as he spoke, breaking into tears at certain points and taking long, tense pauses as he answered questions. “I heard something like yelling,” Kerrick told the detectives as his lawyer looked on. “I heard a loud human grunt sound coming from across the street. … I couldn’t tell if it was somebody screaming. I knew it was human.”
Kerrick said he saw Little fire at Ferrell with the Taser but concluded that it hadn’t worked. “He kept coming towards me. … I was giving him loud commands, but he wasn’t paying me a bit of attention. When he got within, say, 10 feet of me, I fired my duty weapon. It didn’t faze him. He kept coming toward me; I fired again.”
Later that day, Chief Monroe gathered with homicide detectives, the criminal investigations bureau chain of command, and representatives from the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office to watch the dashcam footage. Other than the sworn statements provided by the officers, the video was the single most important piece of evidence that Monroe and the others had to work with as they considered their options. It was based largely on this tape that they would have to decide whether Kerrick’s shooting of Ferrell constituted a crime.
* * *
So far, this might sound like an all-too-familiar story. White police officer kills unarmed black man, defends his decision to use deadly force by saying he feared for his life, enjoys the vigorous backing of his department, and suffers few, if any, consequences for his actions. It’s a script that has played out repeatedly since Ferrell’s death in the fall of 2013, most prominently in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement and forced a national debate about police violence.
But what happened in Charlotte did not conform to that script. What happened instead was surprising and consequential, and not just because it likely spared the city from the kind of destabilizing confrontations between protestors and law enforcement that tore apart Ferguson during the summer of 2014. Rather, Charlotte’s handling of Ferrell’s death was consequential because it demonstrated what can happen when a police officer’s use of deadly force is questioned publicly, with seriousness and vigor. And what can’t.
* * *
At about 8:20 p.m. the night of the shooting, less than 18 hours after Jonathan Ferrell died, CMPD served Randall Kerrick with an arrest warrant. The department released a statement saying that the officer would be charged with voluntary manslaughter, which under North Carolina law meant that investigators had concluded Kerrick killed Ferrell intentionally but “without malice,” using excessive force in the exercise of “imperfect self defense.”
CMPD’s statement read:
Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter. This is a very unfortunate incident and it has devastated a family as well as caused a great deal of sadness and anxiety in our organization. However we must always strive to bring forth all facts and evidence in every case to determine when it is appropriate to place criminal charges against a member of the department.
That night, Kerrick was booked at Mecklenburg County Jail, a short walk from police headquarters. He was released from custody the following day, when he posted $50,000 bond.
It was the first time in more than 30 years that an officer in Charlotte was being charged with a crime for killing someone in the line of duty. In that time, the city had become one of the fastest-growing major cities in America, its economy bolstered by a booming banking industry; in 2012, the city played host to the Democratic National Convention. Charlotte had also become a top destination for black families who had settled in the North but wanted to move back to the South. As a result, the city was now home to one of the largest populations of middle-class blacks in the country.
George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin not three months earlier. And given how rare it is for police officers who kill in the line of duty to face criminal charges, many in the city’s black community greeted the decision to charge Kerrick with relief and hope.
“It was like, ‘Yes, finally, justice is being served,’ ” the Rev. Dwayne Walker, a pastor at the Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte, told me recently. “By Monroe immediately acting and arresting this officer, he sent the message that, ‘No, you don’t get to kill people because you have a badge.’ ”
“The swiftness from Chief Rodney Monroe was, I think, a good blanket for the city,” said Gene Winchester, a local barber and community leader who began working with CMPD after the shooting on a program called Cops and Barbers, aimed at building relationships between police officers and black teenagers. Were it not for Monroe’s swiftness, Winchester said, “We could have been like one of the other cities around the country”—another Ferguson, or Baltimore.
Monroe did not make the decision to prosecute on his own. As Charlotte Magazine noted, he emphasized in comments to the local police union and to the press that it was the investigators in CMPD’s homicide unit who concluded that the charge was warranted. Monroe had concurred with their finding and, after consulting with his chain of command and Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray, pressed forward with the arrest.
Ordinarily, it would have been Murray’s office that brought the case against Kerrick before a grand jury. But after the charges were announced, Murray made a significant decision: He recused himself from the case and passed the work of prosecuting Kerrick to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.
Murray took himself off the case because of a coincidence: Before becoming DA, he had spent 14 years working at a law firm that also employed Kerrick’s attorneys. But the effect of his decision was to eliminate a conflict of interest that typically hangs over the process by which police-involved shootings are handled by local prosecutors. As legal experts have pointed out, prosecutors tend to have close yet delicate relationships with the police departments in their jurisdictions, relying as they do on the police to make their cases stand up in court. This leads to an impression—highlighted recently when a district attorney failed to persuade a grand jury to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York—that prosecutors are inclined to go easy on cops. With Murray handing the case over to Cooper’s office in Raleigh, North Carolina’s capitol, this would not be an issue in Charlotte.
Of course, there was no guarantee that prosecutors in the state AG’s office would secure an indictment either. On Jan. 21, 2014, relying on testimony from a State Bureau of Investigation agent and one of the CMPD detectives who interviewed Kerrick the morning of the shooting, prosecuting attorney James J. Coman presented the case to a grand jury.
The effort proved insufficient. After eight hours, the grand jury came back to Coman with a “no true bill,” meaning the jurors felt the prosecutor had failed to demonstrate there was probable cause to indict Kerrick on manslaughter charges. (In a handwritten note, members of the jury indicated to the prosecutors that they might have been willing to indict under a lesser charge.) “We are shocked and devastated,” a lawyer for the Ferrell family was quoted as saying at the time. “We’re highly concerned that a miscarriage of justice is imminent.”
It might have ended there, as it did in the Garner case. Instead, one week later, Attorney General Cooper did something highly unusual: He had his prosecutors regroup, bring in another CMPD officer and another SBI agent as witnesses, and submit the manslaughter case to a second grand jury on the grounds that the first one had been allowed to vote with four of its 18 jurors absent. Over objections from Kerrick’s defense team, the state presented its argument to a second grand jury. This time, it was successful.
* * *
Kerrick faced three to 11 years in prison if convicted at trial. Whether that would come to pass depended on the state’s ability to convince a jury that, under the circumstances, it was not reasonable for him to use lethal force against Ferrell.
The “reasonableness” standard dates back to two Supreme Court decisions from the 1980s, including one that established that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
It was this standard that guided Monroe and his investigative team on the morning of the shooting, as they decided whether to charge Kerrick with a crime. Would a reasonable officer have feared for his life when Ferrell ran toward him? Would a reasonable officer have decided that the only way to stop Ferrell was to shoot him?
Monroe, who retired as chief of CMPD this past July, just a few weeks before the trial began, called me recently to discuss his reasoning. Speaking from Florida, where he relocated after his retirement, Monroe emphasized that not every police shooting is the same. There had been others on his watch in Charlotte, he said, and he and his investigators had always determined that the officers in question had been justified in using deadly force.
This case, he said, was different; the evidence spoke for itself. First, he said, the dashcam footage showed that Ferrell was unarmed. Despite the patchy lighting and the fast-moving situation, Monroe believed his officers should have been able to ascertain that the suspect had no weapon. Second, neither Little nor Neal, both of whom had more policing experience than Kerrick, used their firearms in response to Ferrell’s behavior. Instead, both had prepared to use nonlethal means to subdue their suspect, with Little reaching for his Taser and Neal racing toward Ferrell with the intention of tackling him in the seconds before Kerrick shot Ferrell. If Kerrick had been afraid that Ferrell was about to kill him, Monroe told me, he shouldn’t have been.
“As a police officer, people run from you, people move toward you—but you have to couple that with, ‘What type of threat does that person actually present to you?’ ” Monroe said. In other words, fear of a potential physical confrontation is not sufficient to justify using lethal force: Not only does an officer have to fear for his life, that fear must also be well-founded and proportionate to the circumstances.
“In [Kerrick’s] mind, he may have had, you know, visions of losing his life—but I could only go on what the facts show,” Monroe said. “And the facts show he should not have had that level of fear … and hence, he shouldn’t have used deadly force.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “you just have to roll up your sleeves and get ready for a fight.”
* * *
The trial, which began on July 20, promised to give Charlotte something rare: a public reckoning with a tragedy borne of the divide between police and the people they’re meant to protect. The work of deciding whether a police shooting was justified would be conducted in the open, with the Charlotte Observer publishing daily reports on the proceedings and local TV newscasts airing footage of courtroom testimony, which was also uploaded to YouTube.
Jury selection began on a muggy Monday morning and resulted in a panel that roughly reflected Charlotte’s racial demographics, with seven whites, three blacks, and two Latinos. On Aug. 3, those twelve men and women sat in Courtroom 5370 at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse with about 150 onlookers, among them Jonathan Ferrell’s mother, and listened as the lead prosecutor in the case, North Carolina Special Deputy Attorney General Adren Harris presented his opening argument. “Jonathan never made any verbal threats to any of the officers. He never tried to fight, kick, bite, scratch any of the officers,” Harris said. “He never brandished a weapon at any of the officers.” In the most dramatic moment of his 12-minute speech, he turned to the jury and asked, “Who polices the police when they do wrong? You.” The rhetorical question reflected the prosecution’s strategy: to paint Kerrick as a police officer who needed to be held accountable for the reckless behavior that had robbed Jonathan Ferrell of his life.
Michael Greene, one of Kerrick’s lawyers, countered with an opening argument that sought to frame the case around Ferrell’s own role in his death. It was Ferrell, Greene said, who crashed his car and then pounded on a stranger’s door in a menacing fashion in the middle of the night. It was Ferrell who rushed a police officer in the dark instead of simply asking for help. “This case is not about race,” Greene told the jury. “It never was. This case is about choices. Jonathan Ferrell’s bad choices.”
In fact, as testimony over the next two weeks showed, the case was primarily about fear. Fear on the part of Ferrell, who, according to prosecutors, began to run because he saw the red dots from Officer Little’s Taser on his shirt and thought the police officers were about to harm him. And fear on the part of Kerrick, who testified through tears that he thought he was about to die at Ferrell’s hands.
“Was he bigger than you, physically?” Kerrick’s attorney asked his client after he was called to the witness stand.
“Yes,” Kerrick replied.
“Was he stronger than you, physically?”
Kerrick testified that he “didn’t have any idea” whether Ferrell had a weapon and that he interpreted his body language as he approached to mean that “he was gonna attack me, he was gonna assault me, he was gonna take my gun from me.” Kerrick also testified that at some point during the confrontation, he ended up on his back and that Ferrell struck him in the face while doing “everything he could” to get a hold of Kerrick’s service weapon. (First responders who examined Kerrick at the scene testified that he had “a bit of swelling” on his cheek and a “busted lip.”)
On cross-examination, prosecutor Teresa Postell focused on Kerrick’s police training and on what he had been taught by his superiors about proper escalation of force. “You were taught in class that it’s not OK to even use a Taser just because you feel someone might have a weapon, right?” she asked him. “Yes ma’am,” Kerrick responded.
On the third day of testimony, the 12 jurors saw the dashcam footage that Chief Monroe and his team had reviewed almost two years earlier. In October 2013, a judge had ordered the video sealed until the trial, after lawyers on both sides of the case argued that releasing it would taint the jury pool.
Showing the video in court, and making it public so that media outlets could post the raw footage online, put the evidence where anyone could see it. This is not a trivial point; such videos are often kept under seal by police departments. With the Ferrell video now public, the people of Charlotte could make their own determination as to what it did and didn’t show, and decide for themselves what was reasonable behavior under the circumstances.
Given the speed with which CMPD had charged Kerrick, some people expected that the video would be unambiguous—that it would come close, in terms of moral clarity, to the video of Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer while trying to run away. But the footage is frustratingly unclear. It shows only that Ferrell appeared to be calm before starting to run and that Kerrick ordered him to get on the ground in the seconds before he shot him. Though it did allow prosecutors to cast doubt on Little’s assertion that Ferrell was screaming “shoot me” and acting erratically when the officers found him, the video failed to capture the crucial moments before Kerrick pulled the trigger; Ferrell, by that point, had run out of the frame.
The video convinced some that Kerrick was right to be afraid, and others that the 10 shots the officer fired were prompted by nothing more than Ferrell’s fearful sprint. Footage from Kerrick’s own dashcam might have provided a crucial second angle, but the officer had switched it off while driving to Sarah McCartney’s house; during his testimony, he said he had done so because, given the darkness and the fact that he had been planning to park his patrol vehicle in front of McCartney’s house, “it would have been recording nothing,” and he didn’t want to waste space on the camera’s hard drive.
* * *
On Aug. 18, after two weeks of testimony, the defense and the prosecution delivered their closing statements, and the jury began its deliberations, with the understanding that a verdict would have to be unanimous. After four days and a total of almost 19 hours of debate, the jurors announced they were deadlocked and had lost hope of reaching an agreement. The Charlotte Observer later reported that they had arrived at a final count of 8–4 in favor of acquittal.
The judge declared a mistrial. That night, Charlotte saw the eruption of its first truly hostile street protests in the name of Jonathan Ferrell, when about 100 demonstrators crowded into the streets in the city center, and some threw rocks at police. The Charlotte Observer, as well as the local NBC News affiliate WCNC, reported that two people were arrested for assaulting officers while the CMPD Civil Emergency Unit was deployed and the uptown transit center was temporarily shut down.
A week of waiting followed, as Attorney General Roy Cooper weighed whether to retry the case, and residents of Charlotte circulated dueling online petitions in hopes of swaying him one way or the other. Then, on Friday, Aug. 28, Cooper announced his decision: There would be no second trial. The charges against Kerrick were dismissed.
“I understand the frustration. Our prosecutors were frustrated,” Cooper said at a news conference. “But I think it’s important that we listen to the jury. I think it’s important that we take this situation and learn from it.” In a letter to the Mecklenburg County district attorney, Cooper explained further:
While our prosecutors tried to seek a conviction, it appears a majority of the jurors did not believe the criminal conviction was the appropriate verdict. Our prosecutors believe they were able to introduce the relevant evidence and examine the witnesses, including the defendant, appropriately and that the jury fully considered the details of the case. However, meeting the standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt could not be achieved.
Reactions to the anticlimactic conclusion of the Kerrick case varied widely. Chief Monroe felt the trial had been worth it. The process itself, he told me, had been good for Charlotte, where residents had been no less divided as to what should happen to Kerrick than the jury was.
“That was the justice, that it made it to a jury, and the jury is representative of our community,” he said. “In a lot of these cases, the decision is made not to charge or not to prosecute, and then it becomes simply a police or prosecutor’s decision. In this particular case you had a jury that heard the case, heard the facts, and they made a decision. And that’s the completed cycle of the justice system.”
But many were not satisfied. It was not enough, in their eyes, for Kerrick to have stood trial—the system had failed by allowing Ferrell’s killer to walk away from the case and resume his life. (At the time of this writing, Kerrick was on unpaid administrative leave, according to CMPD. A lawyer for Kerrick declined to comment for this article or make his client available for an interview.)
“It felt like you had been kicked in the stomach,” the Rev. Walker told me. We spoke at the Little Rock AME Zion Church, where he has been the pastor since moving to Charlotte from Chicago in 2005. “You remember Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football? That’s how it feels. Like, this time you think they’re not gonna move the football, so you run, but as soon as you get there, they take the football away and you fall down on your back again. That’s how it feels.”
Walker was among the community leaders who attended an Aug. 31 meeting of the NAACP, where activists discussed strategies in the wake of the trial. The air in the room was thick with disappointment, disbelief, and anger. With local news crews filming the proceedings, Corine Mack, the president of the NAACP’s local chapter, led a discussion about how to convince Cooper to reopen the case.
“We know that there was an unjust decision—to dismiss the case and dismiss the charges. Everyone in this room is in agreement on that, right?” Mack said, speaking quickly and intensely, like a football coach or an Army sergeant. “A 24-year-old African-American man who was unarmed has been killed at the hands of a white male police officer who … shot him 10 times. And we have people, due to implicit bias or maybe even racism, saying that that black life didn’t matter. That’s my position. What are you willing to do about it—that’s the question.”
A few days later, I caught up with Mack in the lobby of a vocational counseling center to discuss the case. I asked her if the trial had been any comfort to her—whether she thought something had been gained by unsealing the evidence and letting a jury determine Kerrick’s guilt or innocence. Mack had told me earlier that she’d made a point of attending every day of the trial and that she believed the two prosecuting attorneys fought hard for a guilty verdict. But now that the attorney general had decided to dismiss the charges, Mack felt only despair.
“We’re angry. I’m angry,” she said. “I’m not gonna tell you [the charges and the trial] felt like encouragement, because that’s not true. … There’s been a life taken that will never come back.”
* * *
Of course, the trial was never going to bring Jonathan Ferrell back. But by airing all the evidence against Kerrick, by giving the people of Charlotte the opportunity to hear the officer defend his actions in open court, and by putting his fate in the hands of his peers, the trial offered Charlotte something Ferguson and many other cities have been denied: a measure of reassurance that police officers are not above the law. That offered solace to some, though not to all. Ferrell’s family, which won a $2.25 million settlement in a wrongful death suit against the city, vowed to continue calling for Kerrick to be held accountable for his actions. Georgia Ferrell, Jonathan’s mother, told the New York Times that she would go “wherever I have to go to scream until someone understands my loss, our loss.”
Further action against Kerrick is unlikely, however. The question, now, is whether Charlotte’s efforts to see the criminal justice process through will have any bearing on the city’s future. Prosecutors failed in their effort to convict Kerrick of manslaughter—but might the trial, and the lens it held up to police procedure, lead to changes that will prevent future police encounters from turning fatal?
Kerr Putney thinks it could. Putney took over the leadership of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department this summer when Monroe retired. Putney was one of Monroe’s deputy chiefs at the time of the Ferrell shooting and supported the decision to arrest Kerrick. The direction of police-community relations in the wake of the mistrial falls in large part to him.
I spoke to the new chief at CMPD headquarters. A slender, serious, disarmingly frank North Carolina native, Putney told me that for now, his department is still in the process of getting over what was inevitably a traumatic chapter in its history. “I’m sure there will be some positive that will come out of it, but it’s kind of hard to see those right now, because we’re still trying to heal and make sense of everything,” Putney said. “Things like this do divide your organization. They can’t help but do so.”
They also divide the community. Putney, who is black, said he understands that there is a thick layer of suspicion separating his officers—76 percent of whom are white—from some black residents. Like Monroe before him, Putney has been emphasizing to his officers the need to engage with civilians and letting them know that promotions and perks will go to officers who can demonstrate they’ve been making connections with people, rather than merely making arrests and perpetuating the cycle of distrust.
But the distrust runs deep, Putney said, particularly among young black men, in part because it is easily reinforced: One negative encounter with an officer “can have a huge impact” on the way someone feels about all of law enforcement.
One negative encounter, or a string of them. Jamal Tate, a 23-year-old who sometimes works with CMPD as a volunteer on community outreach efforts, told me about growing up in one of Charlotte’s tougher neighborhoods and seeing, as a teenager, police officers patrolling his neighborhood on dirt bikes, circling up above in helicopters, and hassling him and his friends for doing nothing more than sitting in front of their homes.
“A lot of my friends are like, ‘No, I’m not talking with the police, I’m not interacting with the police,’ because they might say the wrong thing and next thing they know they’re in handcuffs going to jail,” Tate told me over coffee at Queens University of Charlotte, where he recently earned a bachelor’s degree. “I’ve seen it happen, where it takes about .2 seconds for a cop to go zero to a hundred, like, real quick. You say the wrong thing and it’s like What’d you say? And it escalates.”
The tension that grows out of such interactions doesn’t just travel in one direction. “There’s fear on both sides” said Shaun Corbett, a barber who helped found the Cops and Barbers program that has brought black teenagers and police officers together for dinners and town hall meetings. “You got these officers so scared that they’re killing us. And then you have us on the other end not knowing how to act in those situations, and we’re afraid too, because we don’t want to get shot.”
The consequences of this mutual fear can be grave, Putney told me: In a situation like the one that cost Jonathan Ferrell his life, “you have this natural distrust that has accumulated, and it’s all brought to bear at that critical instant. … You layer on what’s going on nationally, and everything else, and people start expecting something volatile to happen.”
Putney told me that, in the wake of the Kerrick case, one of the department’s priorities has been to train officers in de-escalation tactics, so that they’re better equipped to handle tense encounters without resorting to violence. He is also trying to shape the way his officers think about using force and what to do when they find themselves seized by fear.
“Some officers are gonna think, ‘If my life is in danger, I can use lethal force.’ But the law does not quite say it that way,” Putney said. “It has to be an imminent threat—and ‘imminent threat’ does not mean you’re anticipating what might happen. It has to be happening now, as in, ‘It’s about to go down so I must react.’ The way we teach our people, you have to truly be in a position to lose your life—not, you’re afraid it could happen.”
And when it comes to deciding whether or not to shoot someone in the line of duty, he says, there’s a difference between doing what is legally justified and doing what’s right.
“Legally justified doesn’t mean we don’t try to meet higher standards of what’s ethically and morally right and wrong,” Putney said. “Sometimes the legal standard is the lowest standard. It’s what we’re here to enforce and achieve. But we always are reaching higher.”