CMPD Deputy Chief Johnny Jennings will become police chief, effective September 2020. Photo: David Flower | City of Charlotte

A rise in homicides and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers highlighted a string of Charlotte’s public safety storylines in 2020. 

Here are four things we were talking about this year:

Record number of homicides

By Christmas Eve, Charlotte had reached 120 homicides. Of those killings, 79% (95) of the victims were Black, according to CMPD data. It surpassed 2019’s total of 107 homicides, which stood as Charlotte’s highest number of homicides in a single year since 1993 when 122 people were killed. [Editor’s note: two more victims were fatally stabbed late Monday night bringing Charlotte’s homicide total to 122.]

With the alarming number of homicides, CMPD pleaded for the community’s help in solving open cases. Detectives have solved 63% of the cases, beating 2019’s national homicide clearance rate of 61.4%, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2019 Uniform Crime Report. 

Efforts to reduce the homicide rate going into 2021 will include the City of Charlotte’s Safety and Accountability for Everyone (SAFE) Plan. The plan is the city’s framework for reimagining policing and public safety, tackling systemic issues and ensuring community equity in the Queen City. City Council members voted to adopt the plan, which will provide $1 million from the city’s budget to help Charlotte-based nonprofits address violence and incentivize officers to live in priority areas. The city is also working with the national group Cure Violence to develop a violence interruption plan. 

Last month, CMPD introduced the MyCMPD mobile app to help prevent crimes and gather feedback from the community. The app features near-real-time crime detection and sends notification alerts for public safety issues —  including from Crime Stoppers. 

Will the city’s safety measures and plans drive down homicide numbers in 2021? 

Regaining the community’s trust

It was a turbulent year for police-community relations. 

Following the police killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude and other high-profile Black civilians, protests against police injustices emerged across the country  — including in Charlotte.

In August, CMPD released more than 50 video clips of body camera footage and surveillance from a June 2 incident where officers threw tear gas into a crowd of protesters. The protestors, who were marching in uptown Charlotte in response to Floyd’s killing, said they became trapped by the gas. The situation resulted in the State Bureau of Investigation launching an independent review of the incident and concluding that CMPD did follow policy. The department petitioned the court to publicly release the videos from that night, beginning an ongoing theme surrounding transparency within CMPD. 

More videos were released throughout the year — including video footage from Harold Easter’s in-custody death and the June shooting on Beatties Ford Road that claimed four peoples’ lives. While the investigation into the Beatties Ford Road shooting is ongoing, the five CMPD employees involved in Easter’s death have resigned

Along with attempts to increase transparency, CMPD also changed policies in efforts to build community trust. Some of the policy changes led to CMPD meeting Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” goals. The initiative was created to reduce police killings nationwide. The department also eliminated the use of tear gas to disperse large crowds and prohibited the use of no-knock warrants. 

Chief Johnny Jennings said at a September press briefing that “he’s not done” and “8 isn’t enough.” Residents can offer input on community policing by completing CMPD’s 8 Isn’t Enough online survey, which will be open indefinitely, according to CMPD spokesperson Rob Tufano. 

Covid-19’s impact on the courts

Covid-19 further complicated things for CMPD and the district attorney’s office. Because the pandemic caused an eight-month shutdown, the Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer B. Merriweather III is faced with a backlog of cases

Merriweather announced a series of internal changes to speed up criminal prosecutions. When he announced the changes, there were 700 criminal defendants in Mecklenburg County awaiting trial in Superior Court. This total includes more than 100 people charged in homicides and about 150 defendants accused of other violent crimes. 

Although Merriweather’s office is expected to implement the plan by February 2021, the district attorney said some defendants accused of violent crimes may not see their day in court for at least three years. Also, he said those accused of homicide may have to wait even longer.

A new chief of police

Former Police Chief Kerr Putney retired on July 1 after serving five years as the city’s top cop and 28 years in the department. Johnny Jennings stepped into the role that same month. 

[Related: Exit interview: Some parting thoughts from Kerr Putney]

Jennings was instrumental in some of Charlotte’s largest events before becoming chief, including the NBA All-Star game in 2019, Billy Graham’s funeral in 2018 and the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
Jennings also dealt with Covid-19 this year.

On Dec. 8, he announced his positive diagnosis on his Twitter. He was the first top city leader to announce testing positive for Covid-19. Besides experiencing fatigue, Jennings tweeted that he felt fine and was continuing to conduct department meetings from home. He has since returned to the job.

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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