Police shooting: Why one chief filed charges against an officer who killed a civilian

Most Chiefs Don’t File Charges Against Killer Cops. This One Did.

Most Chiefs Don’t File Charges Against Killer Cops. This One Did.

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Oct. 2 2015 11:12 AM

“You Could Clearly See the Individual Was Not Armed”

Most police chiefs don’t file charges when their officers kill civilians. Rodney Monroe explains why he did.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 4, 2012.

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Leon Neyfakh’s article on the killing of Jonathan Ferrell and its aftermath was made possible by your Slate Plus membership. Here, just for Slate Plus members, Neyfakh talks with former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe, who made the decision to file charges against officer Randall Kerrick.

Leon Neyfakh Leon Neyfakh

Leon Neyfakh is a Slate staff writer.

Rodney Monroe became chief of North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department five years before Jonathan Ferrell died in Bradfield Farms. By that time he had built a reputation in Charlotte’s black community as an honest and transparent reformer; on his watch, the homicide rate had dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, and trust in the department among minority residents was unusually high—an impression confirmed by a dozen or so conversations with residents of Charlotte during my trip there in August.

Monroe, who is black, retired on July 1, a little less than a month before the trial of Randall Kerrick, the officer accused of killing Ferrell, was set to begin. After his departure, he seemed to disappear completely: Multiple people I asked, including his barber, could not tell me where he was or how to reach him. That was frustrating; I wanted to talk to him about why he made the decisions he made and what he thought the legacy of the trial would be.

The day I was set to leave Charlotte, I drove to the address that was listed for Monroe in public records and left him a note. Two weeks later, he called me. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, during which he showed extraordinary candor and willingness to engage with the kind of criticism law enforcement has been facing since the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

How did the morning of Sept. 14, 2013, begin for you?

We have a system that notifies me whenever there’s a homicide or an officer injured or an officer-involved shooting. So, quite naturally, when the page came through as an officer-involved shooting, I responded directly to the scene. First I checked on the welfare of the officer. As I was approaching the scene he was sitting in the back of the ambulance, so I checked on him, asked him if he was OK.

Was it unusual for you, during your time as Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s police chief, to get pulled out of bed like that?

I was accustomed to being woken up in the middle of the night, and I would always respond to homicides because that to me is one of the most horrific crimes that can be committed against a person and against the community. I always responded to those scenes to make sure we were doing all that we could to solve that case and to let the community know that it was something that was important to me and the organization.

What would happen once you got to the scene of the incident?

On the scene, you just observe—and at various stages through the investigation you’re updated on officers’ initial statements on what physical evidence there is. It’s just a continuous process of information-sharing. And I insert myself in that process to be aware of what’s going on. With officer-involved shootings, I always felt it was my responsibility to respond to the public with what facts we have, what we know. So I wanted to be fully aware of what’s going on.

The decision was made to charge Officer Kerrick less than 24 hours after the incident. How did you and the department come to that decision?

You look at the facts. What are the facts telling you? What is the evidence showing you? You let it bubble up to you. You allow your investigators to explain the facts and what those facts tell them as part of their investigation. You have a cadre of individuals who are pulling information together, sharing it with one another, matching up evidence, matching up statements as they relate to evidence.

When did you first watch the dashcam footage that captured the confrontation between Officer Kerrick and Jonathan Ferrell?

That came a little later. The process is for one of the investigators to seize all of the video from any car that responded to the scene. It’s checked into evidence. I’m not sure when we actually watched it—but it was either that morning or early afternoon that it was watched.

What was your reaction to it?

It was kind of chilling. You could clearly see the individual was not armed. It showed other officers, how they were positioning themselves. You could see when the officer fired his Taser, and you could see how they positioned themselves for cover and so forth. And then you hear the volley of shots. That was not captured on video but you could hear it.

Officer Kerrick’s legal team argued that he acted reasonably in shooting at Ferrell when Ferrell ran toward him. You disagreed with that assessment, obviously, since you concurred with the decision to charge him with manslaughter. Why?

As a police officer, you know, people run from you, people move toward you—but you couple that with, “What type of threat does that person present to you?” And you measure all of that in its right context. Unfortunately we have to fight people every day. But you know, we give an officer a number of tools—from their voice to their hands to their firearms, and everything in between. And we look for them to measure their response based on what that kind of threat an individual is presenting to them at any given time.

Why do you think Kerrick decided to fire his weapon?

You’re looking at very stressful, split-second types of feelings and thoughts that go into that. And you always hope that you’re able to train your officers—and I think part of it is that, unfortunately, we’ve not been able to truly replicate in training the stress levels that are associated with various real-life scenarios. We’ve moved from officers just standing on a firing range and firing shots at a target, to more hands-on, Simunition training, where they’re given Simunition weapons and rounds and protective gear, and we put them in simulators, where they’re faced with different situations that can change up at a moment’s notice. But in the back of your mind you always know, “I’m not gonna be killed because this is training.”

What questions were you weighing as you analyzed the evidence? Can you talk me through how you reached the conclusion that Kerrick overreacted and used excessive force?  

You have to go back to the law, as far as what the law states an officer should be afraid of when it comes to death. When someone has the imminent ability to cause serious bodily injury or death to you, that’s normally associated with a weapon, or when someone starts beating you so bad that you feel it could result in your death.

Prior to getting to one of those thresholds, sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get ready for a fight. But we also provide you with other protective equipment that helps you fight a person off, and we go through a variety of defensive tactics—how to release yourself from holds, how to protect your firearm while you’re fighting.

Do you think most police officers see the threshold above which it’s reasonable to use deadly force as being lower than they should?

I talk to the more senior officers who went through an era in the late ’70s, ’80s, early ’90s, when violence was pretty rampant within our cities, and you expected certain things—you expected that you were gonna get in a fight, and you expected that from time to time you’d get your butt whipped. But you always knew you had a cadre of other people out there who could come and assist you—that you might lose the initial battle but you’d never lose the war when it came to a fight. I think that now you have a generation that has never been in a fight.

What contributes to an officer’s fear when he’s in a high-stress situation?

I think when you hear about a lot of the violence that is permeating our cities—who the victims are, who the suspects are in those cases—I think all of that factors into an officer’s fear. And again, I could never replicate that level of stress in training. 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. And the facts show he should not have had that level of fear. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have it, but based on the facts as we saw them, he shouldn’t have had it, and hence, he shouldn’t have used deadly force.

Because if we ever move away from that—the facts of the case and what we’re presented with—then an officer can go out and shoot and kill someone and automatically say, “Hey, I was getting ready to lose my life,” when really the only thing the person was doing was yelling at them. You can always take it to another level and believe that, you know, something else could happen. But imagine you’re a 110-pound female officer—if a person wanted to overpower you and take your gun from you, physically they could, but if that’s what you believed every time that you came into contact with someone, then we would be in a very, very sad state.

It seems like we keep hearing about incidents in which police officers fire their weapons at people who turn out to be unarmed and justify it by saying they were afraid for their lives. Why do these officers believe they’re in so much danger? 

It’s not just what officers believe—I think there’s large segments of society that share some of those same fears. I have friends who say there’s no way [Kerrick] should have fired his weapon, and I have some friends who understood why he did. So I think it’s just based on how we perceive levels of fear. You saw it in the jury’s decision, where some people felt that he was justified and some felt that he wasn’t. So I don’t think it’s just the officers—I think it’s society itself. You have some people who feel the case in South Carolina [in which Walter Scott was running from a police officer who then shot him in the back] was justified simply because he shouldn’t have ran from the police. So there are different perspectives all over the place. And I don’t think you could find 12 people who all agree on the same set of facts and circumstances they’re presented with.

You had retired by the time the trial started. Did you pay attention to it?

No, I didn’t, other than the verdict. I wasn’t asked to appear. I didn’t want to be a distraction. I kind of waited, like everyone else, for the verdict.

Were you surprised when it ended in a mistrial?

No. I believe that depending on who you were talking to and where you were within the city, people had varying opinions about it. And I think juries are reflective of the community, and my belief was that we were going to see all of those opinions play out in the verdict—hence, the hung jury.

Do you think there an inherent benefit to having the trial, regardless of the outcome?

Yes. That was the justice, that it made it to a jury. And the jury is representative of our community. A lot of these cases may not ever make it to that point—where the decision is made not to charge or not to prosecute, 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. So you had every element of the justice system touch this case—and the decision was up to the jury. And we may not like the decision, we may not agree with the decision. But I think people were OK with the fact that it played itself all the way out.

Do you wish more police-involved shootings made it to trial?

I think that they need to be presented in some fashion to the judicial system. But sometimes you have cases where an individual pulls a gun on an officer, fire a shot at an officer, an officer returns fire and kills that individual—I don’t believe that those cases necessarily need to go to trial. But I think that the public just wants an assurance that they’re going to have a fair and equitable process and a fair and equitable opportunity to hear and learn the facts of a particular situation. And there are those that are borderline—I’ve investigated a number of officer-involved shootings, and this is the first time I’ve concurred that an officer should be charged.

How many have there been, in Charlotte, that you thought were justified?

Just in Charlotte alone, I can say that we’ve had a number of police shootings, an average of 3 or 4 a year. And you know, not all fatal—but in all those other cases, I did not see a need to charge. I turned every one of those cases over to the district attorney’s office, for them to assess it based on our investigation and what we had determined the facts and circumstances to be, and I leaned heavily on them and whether they saw any criminal wrongdoing on the officer’s part in making the decision.

One thing I heard a lot from people in Charlotte was that in some parts of the black community, there’s a real distrust of police. There’s a very pervasive sense that, if you’re a young black person, the police are your antagonists. I wonder if you think that’s something that this trial, and this whole open process, could help with.

Well, you know, I think it goes deeper than that. There is a genuine fear—predominantly in the African-American male community—of police. You look at the recent survey, 79 percent of African-Americans believe that they’re not treated fairly by the police. And whether or not that’s based on actual encounters or based on what they’ve seen in the media, that perception is a reality. In order to really turn this around, that’s where we have to go to. Why that fear is out there, how can we have these conversations? Because the majority of African-American males have never had an encounter with the police but yet still have that fear. More work has to be done to generate relationships and understanding of African-American males and police officers in an environment that’s not out on the street, that’s not based on some confrontation.  

I’ve had conversations with my son about what to expect from police officers when he comes in contact with police officers, how he needs to conduct himself. And that’s something that’s happening in minority communities across the country. Those are real conversations that have to be had with your kids, that have to be had out there in the community. And police have to have those conversations with people as well.

When I think about these incidents involving unarmed black men getting shot by white officers, it’s almost like they’re the sharpest point in that much bigger issue. It’s almost like all those layers of distrust and fear come to a violent point when something like that happens. Does that make sense?

I know what you mean. Fear is a powerful element when you are encountering someone and you’re experiencing fear—whether that’s from the officer’s perspective or the person being stopped by the police. You’re not on solid ground when people are fearful, because when people are fearful, they react differently. When people are fearful of something, what are two things that you do? It’s fight or flight. Those are the two elements associated with fear, and you know, that fear can start from the moment I say, “Hello, I’m Officer So-and-So.” It can start very early in an encounter. And depending on how that encounter goes, those fear levels can rise to concerning levels.

Yeah—and then someone suddenly feels so afraid that they think they’re going to die, and they reach for their service weapon, right?