What started last September and promises to continue through civil lawsuits, possible criminal charges and community action is about more than one incident. When Officer Randall Kerrick fired 12 times at 24-year-old former Florida A&M football player Jonathan Ferrell, hitting him 10 times, it quickly turned to discussions and disagreements over the use of lethal force by police officers and the issue of racial profiling. Kerrick, 28, is white and Ferrell was African American.
Ferrell was apparently looking for help after a car accident when he first knocked on a stranger’s door and then approached three police officers who answered the frightened stranger’s 911 call. The few who have seen a brief police car video can’t agree on what it shows. Kerrick’s attorney says it proves the officer may have thought he was in danger; the Ferrell family attorney says it shows a clearly unarmed man.
Even if the tape were made public, each person might interpret it differently, depending on history and experience.
After viewing the tape, Police Chief Rodney Monroe and his top commanders determined excessive force had been used (the two officers with Kerrick did not fire), though police across the country – anxious about being second-guessed when facing possibly dangerous situations — were surprised at Kerrick’s arrest within 24 hours. Ferrell’s grieving family has filed lawsuits against Kerrick, as well as Monroe, the police department, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
The family and others asking for justice for Ferrell have asked how a young man working two jobs and preparing to return to school could be viewed as a threat. On the night of his accident, he had been drinking but was not legally drunk.
His mother, Georgia Ferrell, has held her son’s childhood Winnie the Pooh doll at press conferences, inviting others to see her son as she still does. The fiancée he had joined in Charlotte wondered if racial profiling played a part. At a protest following the shooting, there was frustration and anger, with Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte NAACP, saying then that African Americans, particularly young black men, are “never given the benefit of the doubt.”
Many of these same voices have expressed dismay at Tuesday’s grand jury decision and await the next step.
These debates are taking place all over the country, with the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, running and winning on promises to reform stop-and-frisk policing policies that disproportionately affect African-American and Latino young men.
In a case that does not involve police but still raises issues of profiling, Theodore Wafer was charged with second-degree murder last November in the death of Renisha McBride in Dearborn Heights, a suburb of Detroit. Though Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said that race was not a factor in her decision to bring charges — Wafer is white; McBride is black — she said Wafer did not act in self-defense when he shot McBride after she knocked on his door after a car accident.
As in each case that results in grief and questions, the Charlotte shooting is personal for families and friends, for those who know Randall Kerrick and knew Jonathan Ferrell. But it will be watched across the country by those with a stake in how it is eventually resolved and a hope that such a tragedy will not happen again.