Charlotte is experiencing its worst spate of fatal police shootings in at least a decade.
In the past 12 months, five people have died during confrontations with Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers.
In four of those cases, police have ruled that the shootings were justified.
The fifth – the Sept. 14 shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell – led police to charge an officer with manslaughter. It also has brought the city unwanted national headlines while adding another chapter to Charlotte’s long-running and sometimes bitter debate over the police department’s use of lethal force.
Police say Charlotte trails other metropolitan areas in the number of fatal police encounters, and city leaders say Charlotte-Mecklenburg police regularly analyze the department’s training to make sure their policies work.
But the issue of lethal force remains divisive, sparking public controversy. Community activists plan to attend a City Hall meeting Monday as part of a push for tougher police oversight.
Two of the state’s top experts on how police use force disagree on whether the training young officers in Charlotte and across North Carolina receive prepares them for what they’ll face on the street.
Both have lined up on opposite sides of a legal fight that arose from CMPD Officer Matthew Wilson opening fire in 2010 on a 15-year-old Harding High School sophomore and injuring him.
The case, like Ferrell’s, illustrates the life-and-death decisions common to crime scenes and the conflicting opinions on how police should respond.
Police investigations into officer shootings have typically taken weeks or months. In response to Ferrell’s death, Charlotte’s police leaders used uncharacteristic swiftness to take an almost unprecedented step: leveling a charge against one of their officers for the first time in at least 30 years.
Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick’s attorneys say the shooting was justified.
In early morning darkness, the three-year officer fired 12 shots at Ferrell, a former college football player and recent Charlotte transplant who had wrecked a car nearby. Ferrell, unarmed, was hit 10 times.
After watching video of the confrontation shot from a dashboard camera in one of the patrol cars, Police Chief Rodney Monroe said his officer used excessive force. Kerrick was charged with voluntary manslaughter.
CMPD ‘gets it’
Charlotte police handle thousands of calls under tense and confusing circumstances where no one dies or gets hurt. City leaders say a study by the police department shows that the number of lethal-force deaths in Charlotte is much smaller than in other similar-sized cities.
When a death occurs, however, the headlines are immediate, the scrutiny intense.
The final catalyst for creation of the city’s Citizens Review Board occurred in 1997 when two CMPD officers, including one who was only 25 at the time, fired 22 shots at a car that had veered through a traffic checkpoint. A female passenger in the car was killed.
After Ferrell’s death, an attorney for his family questioned Kerrick’s qualifications, training and his “shoot-first, ask-questions-later” approach.
Monroe, the chief of police, did not respond Friday to a request for an interview. But in a conversation with the Observer’s editorial board last week, he said his department looks for ways to improve its use-of-force training, and will use the Kerrick case as a check for systemic problems.
City Manager Ron Carlee described the Kerrick shooting as tragic but says the city’s recent lethal-force deaths remain comparatively small. More importantly, he says, the department’s training, policies and values guard against any problematic trends.
Carlee, who joined the city this year, said he was with Monroe two Saturday nights ago when the chief and his top commanders were being briefed about the charges against Kerrick.
“I saw their reactions and heard their questions, and I thought to myself, ‘This is a department that really gets it,’ ” he said.
Shootings at issue
Charlotte is comparing its number of fatal police shootings from the last decade with other metropolitan departments from around the country.
So far, here is what the police study has found: Washington had 49; Memphis, 42; Fort Worth, 32; Austin, 17; Charlotte, 14.
With the exception of Ferrell, all the fatal cases from the past 12 months involved police dealing with armed subjects. Each use of lethal force was found to be justifiable, Carlee said.
Two of the cases, however, involved subjects with histories of psychological problems, and Deputy Chief Eddie Levins told the Observer that those deaths might have been avoided had the officers involved undergone department training to deal with people who have mental illnesses.
CMPD also exonerated Officer Matthew Wilson in the 2010 shooting of 15-year-old Jeffery Green.
Wilson, who had virtually the same time on the force as Kerrick, fired four shots at the teenager, thinking he was a suspect in a stabbing of a woman that night. In fact, Green was the victim’s son. He testified that he had heard about the attack on his mother and had grabbed a knife at his home for protection before trying to find her.
As Green approached Wilson and his mother, the upset teenager at first ignored the officer’s orders to drop the knife.
During the first trial, Wilson testified that he didn’t hear the mother’s shouts that Green was her son. Nor, he said, did he see Green drop the knife or hear a fellow officer’s radio call that the actual suspect had left the area in his car.
Wilson testified that he feared for the safety of himself and others. He fired two shots, then two more as Green first stopped, then ran. The teen was struck twice but recovered.
Wilson remains on the force. Green’s mother filed suit against the officer and the city in 2011.
The case went to federal court in April. It ended in a mistrial when the jury couldn’t agree on a verdict.
Dave Cloutier, who for more than a decade helped design statewide training methods for police officers, testified as an expert witness in Wilson’s behalf that the officer had acted according to state law and law-enforcement policies.
Mel Tucker, a former police chief in Asheville, Hickory and Tallahassee, Fla., and the author of a book on cases involving lethal force, testified that Wilson overreacted. He said Green, who had no criminal history, was too far away from the officer to pose an imminent threat.
Tucker said Wilson’s testimony showed that the officer didn’t understand the basic policies taught to all North Carolina police on the use of lethal force.
The retrial, scheduled to start in August, has been delayed by an appeal by city attorneys aimed a granting Wilson immunity for his actions that night.
Who defines reasonable?
Today, the so-called “reasonable standard” dominates the rules surrounding the use of force. North Carolina law allows the use of lethal force by police “only when it appears reasonably necessary ... to defend himself or a third person from what he reasonably believes to be the use or imminent use of deadly physical force.” One of the clarifying gauges: Would another “reasonable officer” in the same situation act the same way?
The state’s Basic Law Enforcement Training Manual goes deeper. Its elements of “objective reasonableness” include the capability of a subject’s ability to carry out the threat of deadly force, whether the threat is imminent and whether the subject has indicated by word or deed that he intends to cause harm.
The rules, of course, are open to interpretation. Both expert witnesses in the suit against Officer Wilson cited the rules in coming up with completely opposite opinions about “the reasonableness” of Wilson’s firing upon Jeffery Green.
Training consultant Tucker says application of the “reasonable standard” often varies from police station to courtroom.
Moreover, Tucker believes the basic training new officers receive leaves them poorly prepared to make proper decisions during tense and changing circumstances on when to pull their guns.
“It’s a lot different from sitting in a classroom,” Tucker said last week. “We need far more training on judgment, on making decisions under stress.”
Cloutier, who before his retirement helped design the basic training that new police officers receive, says training can always be improved. But what’s in place is adequate, he says, particularly since the state requires additional training in the use of firearms and force each year.
That said, Cloutier believes it’s unrealistic “to expect an individual to respond each and every time in a textbook-perfect fashion when we put them in fluid and really dynamic situations.”
In CMPD, the prime directive is to use no more force than necessary.
In simple terms, the department policy tells officers to respond in kind – using words to respond to a verbal standoff, using force on what might be described as a sliding scale.
If a subject is engaged in “aggravated active aggression,” officers can respond in a number of ways – from extreme physical force to using their guns.
CMPD has declined to spell out how it specifically trains new officers on the use of force. Maj. Mike Adams, who commands the department’s training center, did not return calls last week.
Carlee said the department regularly assesses its training and policies.
“After every incident, certainly after one like this (Ferrell), the police department is reviewing policies and procedures,” he said. “There’s never a sense of complacency or ‘we have this figured out.’ ”
This summer, CMPD started using a new video training program. In some of the simulations, officers have only seconds to decide whether to fire their guns.
The department said it expected all officers to have gone through the training by August.
It was unclear Friday whether Kerrick had undergone the training.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers have shot and killed four people in 2013, the most in at least 10 years. Five people have died in the past 12-month period.
2013 - 4
2012 - 2
2011 - 0
2010 - 1
2009 - 0
2008 - 1
2007 - 1
2006 - 3
2005 - 1
2004 - 1
CMPD fatal shootings
On Sept. 14, Jonathan Ferrell became the fifth Charlotte-Mecklenburg resident in a 12-month period to die from police fire. Here are the others:
July 6: Lemuel Rufus Furr III, 59, is killed by SWAT officer Olin Lester, a 13-year veteran of CMPD, after pointing guns at officers. Furr had been barricaded in a house after reportedly shooting at his son. Police said Furr told negotiators he would not be taken alive. The shooting was reported at about 1:15 a.m.
June 19: Jaquaz Walker, 17, is shot and killed at Hidden Valley Elementary School. Police said he and an accomplice shot an informant during an early afternoon drug deal that was actually an undercover sting. Two undercover, sixth-year detectives shot Walker.
Jan. 6: Spencer Mills III, 56, is shot and killed after police said he charged toward officers with a box cutter. He had been having problems with his father, who flagged down officers for help at around 11 p.m. Police said Mills had a box cutter to his own throat when they arrived. One officer tried to shoot Mills with a Taser. The officer who fatally shot Mills, Jeremy Donaldson, had been with CMPD for 2 1/2 years.
Sept. 14, 2012: Clay McCall is shot and killed by officer Ole Swenson, a 25-year veteran. Officers were called by mental health representatives at around 10 a.m. after McCall, 25, had apparently fought with his grandmother and been locked out of her home. McCall advanced toward officers with garden shears, and one officer tried to Taser him before Swenson shot.
The Charlotte Observer's Cleve R. Wootson, Jr. and Ely Portillo also contributed to this report.