Things would change, city officials vowed three years ago, after a white police officer shot and killed a black man seeking help after he was injured in a car accident. There would be new training and community outreach designed to prevent encounters from escalating into police gunfire.
But change has been slow to come here and across the nation, since Jonathan Ferrell died in 2013. Last week, a black police officer shot and killed another black man, Keith Lamont Scott, triggering massive, sometimes violent protests. Police officials acknowledged that the officer had recently been trained on ways to de-escalate tense encounters with citizens, but he had not yet received mandatory training aimed at rooting out racial, gender and religious bias.
Protesters who thronged the streets of downtown Charlotte for five straight nights after Scott’s shooting said the lack of progress is palpable. Charlotte police, they say, continue to single out minorities and ignite rather than reduce tensions.
“Here we are again. This man is dead, and the police haven’t changed a bit,” said Lonnie White, 32, an accountant who joined about a hundred people demonstrating outside police headquarters late Friday for the release of police video, which was made public Saturday evening but does not show whether Scott was holding a gun.
“I am here because nothing has been fixed,” White said. “I am here because nothing has changed since they killed Jonathan Ferrell.”
Intense nationwide scrutiny on whether police wield fatal force too quickly and too often, particularly against black Americans, has prompted many departments to step up training, but the pace of deadly shootings has not changed. So far this year, 708 people have been killed by police; nearly 1,000 civilians were killed in 2015, according to a Washington Post database. In North Carolina’s largest city, five have been fatally shot this year, compared with two in 2015.
The grim toll illustrates the challenges of reforming a police force and animates the fatigue and anger of communities demanding change over the two years since protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, when a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown.
The reforms are rolling out in a slow, scattershot fashion. There are about 18,000 police departments in the nation, many with their own training academies and unions, making it impossible for them to move in unison.
Designing new programs also takes time. Often, as it was with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, community leaders, outside training experts and police unions work for months to reach agreement. And then it can take years to get officers through the new training, particularly in large departments such as Charlotte’s, which has about 1,850 sworn officers.
Local politics often gets in the way, said Sam Walker, who has written and consulted extensively on police accountability. Half of U.S. mayors serve for two years or fewer; police chiefs three years or fewer. When the new guard comes in, they often dismantle reform programs from the old guard when they are still in their infancy, opting for new ones they can publicly tout as their own.
“It’s like Hollywood,” Walker said. “You don’t want to be in the middle of producing a movie when the head of the studio gets fired because the new head won’t want to make it.”
Citizen or civilian police review boards – set up largely to examine instances where police officers are accused of using excessive force – have also proved to be of little help.
The boards are typically set up in communities after a controversial shooting, as was the case in Charlotte, when, in 1997, the City Council created the Citizens Review Board after the fatal shooting of three unarmed black men by white officers.
Of the more than 200 such boards, fewer than a dozen have the power to independently investigate use-of-force cases and complaints against officers. None have the power to mandate changes to police training, said Walker, who is also an expert on the boards.
Just two months after the Ferrell shooting, community activists attempted a massive overhaul of the board, hoping to give it greater powers. The panel of 11, appointed by the mayor and City Council, now receives the full department file from any investigation of an officer accused of using excessive force.
But it still has no authority to investigate, and its meetings continue to be held in private. Both factors have inhibited improvements in the relationship between police and the community, said Kyle Knight, who helped organize the reform movement.
“There has to be that trust between the officers and the people they are serving, and it’s just not there,” he said.
For some, there was hope that the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Ferrell on Sept. 14, 2013, would be a turning point.
A dash-cam video captured important details of the incident that began about 2:30 a.m., when a sober Ferrell crashed and totaled his Toyota Camry, escaped through the broken rear windshield and went looking for help. Ferrell knocked on the door of a nearby home, which frightened the homeowner, who called 911. When officers arrived, Ferrell ran unarmed toward them in the darkness. The only officer at the scene to draw his firearm was Randall Kerrick, who fired 10 shots into his chest.
Within hours, then-Police Chief Rodney Monroe did something unusual. There were no long delays while the department investigated. He held a news conference, televised nationally, saying that Kerrick “did not have the lawful right to discharge his weapon.” He said they were arresting one of their own.
Community leaders said the prompt response gave them some hope for justice and change. But when the jury deadlocked in 2015 just weeks before the second anniversary of Ferrell’s death – and a mistrial was declared – the new police chief knew something more had to happen.
“There were tears, a lot of emotion,” said Jibril Hough, who organized many of the demonstrations that followed. “There was some rage, but there was no rioting, no looting. Still, the community had enough of waiting.”
Hough and a dozen other community leaders were asked by Police Chief Kerr Putney to be part of an external committee he created to give him feedback on what changes were needed. Putney also formed an internal committee filled with rank-and-file officers, lieutenants and sergeants.
With both committees’ input, the department created programs to train officers in detecting racial and other biases, installing calm during tense encounters with citizens and taking cover and talking to mentally ill suspects rather than using fatal force.
Most were developed a year ago, said Capt. Demetria Faulkner-Welch, who runs the department’s training academy. Hundreds still have not received some of the training.
Management is required to go through a year-long program on “cultural competency,” a course that teaches them ways to identify and deal with biases, including ones that are racial and gender-based. So far, only 15 of the department’s 150 lieutenants and sergeants have completed the program.
Rank-and-file officers must take a much shorter course, of just eight hours. Eight hundred officers still have not received this training.
The officer who shot and killed Smith, Brentley Vinson – now on administrative leave from the department – has not completed this course, Faulkner-Welch said. Vinson, who graduated from the academy in 2014, was also supposed to have been enrolled in a class shortly after graduation called “Race Matters for Juvenile Justice – Dismantling Racism.” Because of a backlog in the training schedule, he also has not completed this course, Faulkner-Welch said.
There has been greater success with getting officers through other new training programs. More than 1,000 officers have gone through training to learn better techniques to properly determine when someone is in the midst of a mental-health crisis and, when it is safe, calmly talk to the person so that they can take the person into custody.
The department also has seen higher completion rates with field-training exercises since it was able to modify existing programs. For example, officers are being trained in mock scenarios – including ones modeled after the evening involving Ferrell – where they are taught to respond to hostile encounters with unarmed suspects using batons, pepper spray and other less-than lethal tactics.
“We incorporated more situations where you don’t fire guns,” Faulkner-Welch said. “We are teaching them how and when to do this without compromising their safety.”
But after the shooting of Smith by Vinson – who has gone through the new field-training exercises – people such as Hough say they think more reforms are needed.
“This is a new day. It’s time to take things to the next level,” Hough said. “We need to get back to the table and do some harder work on rules of engagement. We are losing time. Every week, there is another killing in another city and with social media, it feels just like it’s happening in your own city.”