In the wake of violent protests calling for more police transparency, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts says the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department should no longer investigate its own officers in police shootings.
CMPD is the only police department in North Carolina that routinely conducts its own probes into all officer shootings, law enforcement officials say. Other departments call in the State Bureau of Investigation for all fatal shootings.
It’s uncertain whether Roberts’ call to reverse the department’s longstanding practice will gain traction but community activists support the idea and national experts recommend such independent reviews.
“I am an advocate for independent review of all officer-involved shootings,” Roberts said. “I think it’s important to build public trust.”
Public distrust was on angry display when violent protests broke out in the streets of Charlotte after police shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20.
No independent investigative agency was on the scene until two days after the shooting. CMPD investigators interviewed the officers who were involved and collected evidence. The SBI wasn’t brought in until Scott’s family members requested an independent investigation.
Most police shootings in Charlotte get no independent scrutiny. In recent years, the SBI has investigated about a third of CMPD’s fatal police shootings. The state agency gets involved in such probes only in cases where the families of shooting victims ask it to investigate.
National experts recommend independent reviews. In a 2015 report, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing urged law enforcement agencies to mandate independent investigations in police shootings. CMPD has been studying the recommendations.
CMPD Chief Kerr Putney and other department leaders refused to be interviewed about their investigations into police shootings.
But supporters say CMPD’s investigations are thorough and professional. They say the 1,900-officer department is better staffed than the SBI, and therefore better equipped to provide the timely response that is critical to criminal investigations – particularly during the first 48 hours.
“Putting a number of boots on the ground within minutes and hours is extremely important to me to securing a scene and making sure no rock is left unturned,” said Mecklenburg County District Attorney Andrew Murray. “As of right now, it is not my opinion that they (the SBI) have adequate resources to handle all of our matters.”
Jim Coman, a former SBI director and senior deputy attorney general for North Carolina, said that in about a half-dozen cases in recent years, the Mecklenburg County district attorney quietly asked him to review the local investigations into police shootings.
“I never had any criticisms when they asked whether they were making the right call,” Coman said. “The investigations were first class …When I saw their work product, you could say they made a believer out of me.”
Others, however, say it is difficult for agencies like CMPD to objectively police themselves. In recent years, a number of states – including New York, Connecticut and Illinois – have taken steps to eliminate conflicts and ensure independent investigations of police shootings.
“It is dangerous for any organization to critique itself,” said the Rev. Rodney Sadler, a leader for the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, one of the groups involved in the recent protests. “You have a subjective bias.”
Charles Monnett, a Charlotte lawyer who is representing the Scott family, also helped represent the relatives of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed man who in 2013 was shot to death by police officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick.
After examining the interviews that CMPD conducted while investigating the Ferrell shooting, Monnett said the officers involved weren’t always subjected to rigorous questioning.
“There were inconsistencies in their statements that no one seemed to explore,” he said.
Independent investigations would help ease the minds of an increasingly skeptical public, Monnett said.
“The public is clearly less willing to accept what police say at face value,” he said. “They are demanding a higher level of proof.”