CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The city of Charlotte said Monday that upcoming Duke Energy and Bank of America shareholders meetings will represent the first test of expanded police powers that grant officers more leeway to stop and search people in or near protests.
The meetings have been designated “extraordinary events,” which were approved by the Charlotte City Council in January in preparation for September’s Democratic National Convention. The city also said police will have extra power during the Speed Street festival in May and the 4th of July celebration uptown.
When the city manager designates such an event, a number of items become prohibited inside a designated public area, such as crowbars, chains and hammers.
But the most controversial part of the ordinance surrounds more mundane items, such as backpacks, satchels and coolers.
Under the ordinance, those items are prohibited if police believe they are being used to carry weapons or other prohibited items, such as “noxious” substances. The city has said that at past political conventions, protestors have entered portable toilets and filled backpacks with human waste, which they threw at police.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Monday that ordinary citizens, or people protesting lawfully, do not have to be worried.
In a news release Monday, the city sought to reinforce that point with an example that “residents will be able to walk their dog within the extraordinary event boundaries without fear of arrest.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of N.C., however, has been critical of the prohibition on backpacks if police believe they are being used to conceal weapons or prohibited items.
The ACLU believes that gives police wide latitude to search law-abiding citizens and could lead to profiling.
The ACLU is concerned about a scenario in which someone is walking uptown in an area that’s been designated as part of an extraordinary event zone. The person is carrying a backpack near a protest site or perhaps in front of a demonstration.
The police ask to search his backpack and the person refuses. The ACLU has said that could lead to an arrest.
Hagemann said police would have to believe the person is carrying a weapon or prohibited item, and that the 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
Hagemann also said the city enacted an extra layer of protection for people who are arrested wrongly.
“Before you arrest, you need to make a reasonable inquiry,” Hagemann said. “You have a construction worker carrying tools. He’s not causing problems. It’s incumbent (on the police) to say: ‘Where are we headed with that?’"
CMPD Deputy Chief Harold Medlock said the main benefit to the designation is that it allows police officers to “interact” more with people.
For example, if a person or group of people walks down the street with crowbars, an officer can’t normally do much about it, Medlock said.
But with the extraordinary events designation, “It gives us the ability to come up and say, 'Hey, where are you going with this?’" Medlock said. “If they tell us they’re going to the protest, we’ll tell them ‘No, you’re not.’”
Medlock said the two companies did not ask the city for the designation.
The city has said that people can still picket or protest on any city sidewalk, so long as they aren’t obstructing the right-of-way.
Katy Parker with the ACLU in Raleigh said her group is concerned that Charlotte City Manager Curt Walton is allowed to designate extraordinary events without City Council approval.
“We have a general concern about the manager having unfettered discretion to declare any event and extraordinary event,” Parker said. “He can declare when, where and how, without any input from citizens or city council. That’s an going concern. That threatens to chill free speech.”
City officials said Monday they had “reliable information that significant numbers of demonstrators” are planning to attend Thursday’s Duke Energy meeting at the corporate headquarters on South College Street in Charlotte’s uptown. They said they also have reliable information that several groups plan to protest at Bank of America’s meeting May 9.
Bank of America declined to comment.
The city’s announcement comes a week after a chaotic scene outside the Wells Fargo & Co. annual shareholders meeting in San Francisco. Half a dozen protesters chained themselves together, blocking a door, and another group made their way inside the building, loudly chanting. In total, about 500 people protested the bank’s lending and foreclosure practices.
Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams said the company did not ask for the extraordinary event designation, but that it would coordinate with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
“We want to make sure our shareholders can get in and out of the meeting, and we can conduct the meeting,” Williams said. He said that Duke Energy expects there to be protesters, but that the atmosphere will likely not be that different from years past.
Police made several arrests in February, when protesters refused to leave the Duke Energy building and erected large tripods on the sidewalk in front of the building. Other arrests took place last November when protesters hung large banners on the Bank of America’s headquarters.
Both Speed Street and the July 4 events also have been the scene of problems. Dozens of people were arrested when fighting broke out last May at Speed Street, and arrests also have followed several July 4 events uptown.