Civil rights activists say that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has a history of using force against minorities and overpolicing black people by targeting them for illegal stops and low-level drug arrests.
That, activists say, likely fostered a distrustful environment that produced violent protests in the wake of Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting death at the hands of police.
Publicly available data reveal some problems, though they are similar to those faced by police departments across the country. The department has settled several lawsuits stemming from allegations of excessive force and disparate treatment in recent years. According to an analysis of traffic-stop information by the advocacy group Southern Coalition for Social Justice, 54 percent of drivers stopped in 2016 were black. The group’s data says blacks represented about 35 percent of the population in that area, according to 2010 Census data.
All of the seven people fatally shot by the department’s officers since 2015 were minorities, and all but one were black, according to a Washington Post analysis.
“There’s kind of this natural tension and level of suspicion going both ways,” said S. Luke Largess, a lawyer who has represented people suing the department. “It’s a real fundamental problem.”
The police department did not respond to a message seeking comment on the incidents and its relationship with residents. At a news conference Friday, Mayor Jennifer Roberts said: “We know there are disparities in our community. We know there are people who believe they are not being treated equally. We want to face that. We want to work together in the best interests in all of us to move forward, to address those disparities.”
In an interview with The Post, Roberts said the city had invested in body cameras and implicit bias training, though she acknowledged that officials “still have a lot of work to do.”
“Charlotte is better than a lot of places,” Roberts said. “Our chief has been working really hard to eliminate those disparities.”
The Justice Department has never investigated the department in Charlotte, and a preliminary search in response to a Washington Post records request revealed officials there received only 17 calls and letters about the police department over the past decade. That is a small number, given that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division receives about 200 complaints each week. Federal authorities are monitoring — but not themselves investigating — the recent shooting death of Scott, which sparked violent protests.
Prosecutors charged an officer — Randall “Wes” Kerrick — with manslaughter in connection with the 2013 shooting death of 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell. Ferrell, a black former college football star, was looking for help after a car crash, but knocking at a stranger’s door at 2:30 a.m., he was mistaken for a burglar. A resident called police, and Kerrick shot Ferrell in the chaotic encounter that ensued.
A police cruiser dash-cam video shows that Ferrell ran in Kerrick’s direction after an officer fired a Taser in Ferrell’s direction, and that is when shots rang out. Kerrick testified that he fired in self-defense, and jurors in the case ultimately could not reach a verdict. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper has said he will not retry the case, and Charlotte ultimately agreed to a $2.25 million civil settlement with Ferrell’s family.
It was one of several instances of alleged police misconduct that led to the city compensating residents. In 2010, for example, Clarence Barber sued the department, claiming that he was punched in the stomach, slammed against the hood of his car and arrested when he was outside of his own home, smoking a cigarette. Barber was ultimately charged with “resist, obstruct and delay” and spent more than two months in jail, though the case against him was ultimately dropped, according to his lawsuit.
Largess, the lawyer who represented Barber in the suit, said the city agreed to pay between $90,000 and $95,000 to settle the case. Both Barber and the arresting officer were black, Largess said.
In 2014, Charlotte agreed to pay $115,000 to a teenager who was shot and wounded after coming to help his wounded mother, according to the Charlotte Observer. That same year, a federal jury awarded $500,000 to the family of a man who died after police shocked him with a Taser.
The lawsuits and awards are significant but fairly common, said David Mitchell, who previously led the Maryland State Police and Prince George’s County Police Department and now works as the University of Maryland police chief.
“It’s not unusual, number one, to get sued, and number two, to pay out, and sometimes it’s cheaper to settle than to have a protracted trial,” Mitchell said. “And sometimes, police officers make mistakes, and you have to own up to that.”
Largess, who said a significant amount of his work involves allegations of police impropriety, said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is “not like Chicago,” but it has had its share of incidents to foster mistrust. He said he also represented an elderly man in a lawsuit that also settled some years ago who had his arm broken after officers burst into his home and threw him out of his bed. They were in search, Largess said, of a younger relative.
Largess said that an academic study found that Charlotte ranks low in terms of social mobility and that schools had become less integrated, especially since a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
“This is kind, to me, this is kind of the top blowing off the barrel on that whole dynamic,” Largess said.
Julian H. Wright Jr. of Robinson Bradshaw firm, who serves as a lawyer to the Citizen Review Board, said the board has received roughly 85 to 90 complaints since its inception in 1997 and has never determined the chief abused his discretion or clearly erred in deciding discipline for an officer accused of misconduct.
The complaints that the department receives, though, represent only those from residents who appeal the discipline an officer received, and the board must determine by a preponderance of evidence that the chief clearly erred. He said the board pushed in recent years to include among its responsibilities handling complaints about racial profiling.
Criminal defense attorney and former public defender Tim Emry said that one of the biggest problems in Charlotte is the number of blacks who are targeted for stops by the police department’s Focus Mission Team, the equivalent of “stop and frisk,” he said. The ACLU of North Carolina, analyzing 2010 data, reported in 2013 that blacks were 4.6 times more likely to get arrested for having marijuana than whites in Mecklenburg County.
“The focus mission team drives around to try and find whatever traffic violations to pull over African American drivers,” Emry said. “And the purpose is not to write traffic tickets but to conduct searches.”
“The outrage we are seeing is not about one shooting, but the chronic overpolicing in their neighborhoods,” Emry said.
Julie Tate and William Wan contributed to this report.