Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings revealed that a sergeant and four officers have been cited for termination after an internal investigation into the in-custody death of Harold Easter.
During a press briefing Friday, Jennings said an independent review board of officers across several ranks and a civilian from the Community Relations Committee made the recommendation to cite the five sworn CMPD employees.
Police arrested Easter during a traffic stop on Jan. 23 after officers said they observed a suspected drug transaction, in which Easter was the driver of a vehicle containing both marijuana and cocaine.
While in custody on drug and traffic charges, according to CMPD, officers stripped-searched and shackled Easter to the floor of an interrogation room and left him unattended for more than 20 minutes before they realized he was having a seizure and losing consciousness. Easter was transported to the hospital, where he died on Jan. 26.
The CMPD employees involved — sergeant Nicolas Vincent and officers Brentley Vinson, Michael Benfield, Michael Joseph and Shon Sheffield — were placed on administrative leave with pay the following day.
Vinson is the officer who shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in 2016. County prosecutors did not charge him with Scott’s death, concluding that the shooting was justified.
During Friday’s press conference, Jennings said an internal investigation proved that the sergeant and four officers had “intimate knowledge” that Easter swallowed and ingested cocaine during the traffic stop.
“This case is tragic in so many ways, not just for Mr. Easter; we also have officers that have been cited for termination that in all aspects were fine officers,” Jennings told reporters. “However, as guardians of the community, we have to protect and serve the community who were in our care regardless of the circumstances. We have that responsibility.”
More to come
In response to the internal review of the incident, documents show that four departmental directives were revised on Feb. 6 and implemented on March 18. Policy changes include the requirement that officers maintain continuous observation of a subject when in custody instead of every 15 minutes.
On Sept. 11, Superior Court Judge Carla Archie ordered all videos associated with the case to be released publicly on Oct. 1. CMPD says it will provide additional information after the videos have been released.
Jennings can recommend the employees be terminated, but they must be given due process. The Civil Service Board will make the final determination if the officers are fired.
The State Bureau of Investigation will hand over criminal investigation findings to the district attorney, who will review and determine if any criminal charges will be brought against the officers.
Charlotte mayor responds
Mayor Vi Lyles addressed the situation hours after the police chief’s announcement.
“Once again as mayor, I ask this community to understand that we hope to take this important step for the Easter family to find some comfort and to understand that we acknowledge their loss,” she said.
Lyles acknowledged Jennings’ leadership and accountability. She did not omit her and Charlotte City Council’s accountability to residents.
“We stood in this place one time too many, and today is the acknowledgment that we know that there will be videos released by the judge in the next week that the district attorney will make a determination based upon an investigation by his office.”
Lyles confirmed that the Easter family has seen the videos, but, by law, she and other council members were not allowed to view. She believes video footage will play a significant role in the ongoing investigation by the district attorney’s office.
A draft of the city’s Community Safety Plan is expected to be released next month, which Lyles says will deal with how the city addresses violence and how CMPD will police the community.
“Today isn’t the end of what is going to be a difficult time for our community,” she said, “but it never will be a part of anything more than moving forward with improving how we make sure we police well and protect our citizens first and foremost.”