By now, it has become almost routine — the police shooting, the outrage, the protests.
And the decisions.
Do you release the footage? Do you deploy riot gear? Do you call in the National Guard?
For city leaders across the country, this is their new reality, in which a tragically common incident — the shooting of a black man by police — has the potential to unleash chaos upon their communities, in which the wrong decision can set a city afire.
On Thursday, it was Charlotte’s turn to struggle through those decisions. As they did, Mayor Jennifer Roberts (D) and her police chief were drawing on the painful lessons learned in places such as Ferguson, Mo., Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis.
But even with so much history as a guide, Roberts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney have been unable to prevent violent clashes between protesters and police. Even now — more than two years after riots in Ferguson rocked the nation, after countless after-action reports, investigations and panel discussions by mayors who have weathered their own cities’ protests — it remains extraordinarily difficult to de-escalate public anger when the local police shoot and kill another black man.
In Charlotte, the most heated debate has centered on how transparent authorities should be about their investigation into Tuesday’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. Scott’s family and police have given starkly different accounts of the shooting. Relatives say he was holding a book. Police say he was holding a gun.
At a news conference Thursday, reporters shouted repeated questions about whether police would release video footage of the incident recorded by officers’ body cameras. Putney said he had no plans to release the video, citing the department’s policy not to do so until a shooting investigation is complete and unless there is a “compelling reason.”
Putney said that he had seen the video and that it “does not give me absolute definitive visual evidence that would confirm that a person is pointing a gun.” Even if he released the video, he said, he doubted whether it would help to calm things down.
“I can tell you this,” Putney said. “There’s your truth, my truth and the truth. . . . Some people have already made up their minds.” He added that police have presented some evidence already. “That still didn’t change the mind-set and perspective of some who wanted to break the law and tear down our city,” he said.
In stark contrast to Charlotte, officials in Tulsa this week waited just two days before releasing multiple videos and recordings documenting the fatal shooting of a 40-year-old black man in that city.
A news release sent to journalists Monday included links to the videos and said in the first sentence that Tulsa police were releasing the information “in an effort to collaborate and show transparency.” At a news conference later that day, Police Chief Chuck Jordan assured reporters, “We will do the right thing.”
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett (R) was also on message.
“It was something that we talked about over the years, that if something of this magnitude were to happen, being transparent, giving out information as quickly and as complete as possible,” Bartlett told local news station KOTV. “That was our desire and our decision. We don’t want to be perceived as trying to cover something up.”
Other cities have also moved aggressively to release videos of officer-involved shootings as soon as possible in an effort to avoid becoming the next Ferguson.
“I’m not trying to second-guess any mayor . . . and every situation is different,” said New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “But what we’ve seen is the faster you release that kind of information and the more the public knows about it, more often than not, it’s better.”
Still, to pin everything on the decision about whether to release video is simplistic, said Darrel Stephens, who served for years as Charlotte’s police chief and now serves as executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association.
Over three days, Stephens said, he watched in anguish as his former exploded in violence. He said he feels deep empathy for Putney and other city officials.
“There are good reasons why you wouldn’t necessarily release video,” Stephens said, to avoid tainting the accounts of people who claim to be eyewitnesses, for example, or to avoid tainting potential jurors.
What is missed amid the controversy and hand-wringing over best practices to defuse anger on the streets, he said, is the fact that these incidents continue to evolve.
Just last year, for example, Stephens said Putney found himself in an almost identical situation in Charlotte. Many African Americans were angry when a jury deadlocked and did not convict a white officer who had shot and killed a black man in 2013.
Back then, Putney and Roberts took many of the same steps they are taking now to reach out to the community. Then, they managed to calm that anger and channel it into improvements in police-community relations.
Putney “did an admirable job. And it was the same moves as he’s doing now,” Stephens said. “What’s changed is everything else.”
For example, the amplifying effect of social media continues to grow, he said. As does the level of national anger over such shootings, each of which draws more media attention and more national activists rushing to the scene. “It’s a whole new world, and it keeps changing,” he said.
It is a world that Charlotte’s mayor is trying desperately to navigate. On Wednesday night, just hours before Charlotte erupted in a second night of violence, Roberts spoke about steps she is taking to meet with community activists, position officers to prevent more violence and defuse the underlying anger.
“I understand the anger,” she said in a telephone interview between meetings, her voice cracking at times with weariness. “A family is now missing a brother, son, a dad.”
She said she was trying to find a compromise on the video, asking to see it herself and asking that police also show it to a handful of leaders from groups such as the local NAACP.
Roberts said she believes the anger on her city’s streets — the bloody clashes, looting and street bonfires — is being driven by this nationwide outrage over repeated shootings of black men by police. But the anger has local roots as well, she acknowledged.
As mayor of a city that remains starkly segregated by wealth and race, Roberts said she has tried to narrow those gaps and bridge the resentment and distrust built up over years of disparate policing and economic inequalities.
“We still have discrimination in our society. We still have disparity. We’re working really hard to ameliorate that,” Roberts said. “We have many different groups working on closing the economic gap in Charlotte, people working on the gap in schools and education.”
Like so many mayors in the same situation these past two years, Roberts said she has tried to remain optimistic. She continues to search for answers.
On her wall, she said, hangs a quote that she has considered frequently in the past week. “One of the best ways to get me to achieve something is to tell me I can’t,” it reads.
“It’s been a tough year for me,” Roberts said. “But if I can help, I will feel like my life has had a purpose.”
Wesley Lowery in Charlotte contributed to this report.