CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Carolina Panthers try to scratch out wins on the field, Charlotte police and firefighters say neighborhoods across Charlotte are losing.
A WCNC Charlotte investigation revealed some parts of the city are receiving less police and fire protection on game days. The reduced and shifted resources are the result of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the Charlotte Fire Department pulling on-duty police and firefighters away from their assigned zones to cover Bank of America Stadium.
"There's no other way to put it. There's definitely going to be an impact to public safety," Charlotte Firefighters Association President Tom Brewer said. "It absolutely concerns me and it should concern the citizens as well."
Brewer said the 2021 Panthers season kicked off with 16 on-duty firefighters plus supervisors. That's roughly 6% of that shift's staff, pulled from three stations — in southeast, north and Uptown Charlotte — to work the game, leaving multiple trucks out of service, Brewer said.
"They may just be coming from a little further away, but they're still coming," Brewer said of the impact on fire service in those areas."
According to Brewer, the approach is a major change from past years when CFD relied on off-duty firefighters to cover stadium events.
"We weren't given a reason. We were just told that it was going to be covered by all on-duty companies. We were just told, 'This is how it's going to be," he said. "The whole reason the city used off-duty companies when this began was because they didn't want to put a strain and they didn't want to lessen fire service to the city."
Those reassigned firefighters are on top of the 70 to 80 on-duty police officers CMPD moved during the two home preseason games and 54 on-duty officers reassigned to work the Jets game. As WCNC Charlotte previously uncovered, the CMPD reassignments are the result of not enough off-duty officers willing to work security and traffic.
"If they're getting pulled for these events, they're not in your community patrolling right now," Fraternal Order of Police Public Information Officer Yolian Ortiz said.
Ortiz said during the Panthers' first game of the regular season, just a handful of officers worked the Providence (4) and Freedom (5) divisions and only six covered Steele Creek. According to Ortiz, those staffing numbers are well below minimum staffing standards of eight to nine officers.
"You're going to find yourself calling 911 and possibly waiting an hour or two for an officer to show up," she said of the impact.
Initially, CMPD told WCNC Charlotte the agency maintained its minimum staffing on game days, but now that the FOP is saying three divisions were actually understaffed during the home opener, CMPD won't address that question, saying the information "speaks to means and methods and will not be released as it is part of our Sensitive Public Security Information."
CMPD cited newly released data that show average response times on Fridays and weekends have remained consistent for the highest priority calls, regardless of whether there's a football game. It remains unclear, however, what impact the staffing decisions have had on lower priority police calls. WCNC Charlotte recently requested that data from CMPD and is waiting for the agency to provide it.
"The CMPD is the primary provider for both the internal security and exterior traffic direction as well as other safety and security measures surrounding and including the BOA Stadium during Panthers' home games and other large-scale events," CMPD said in a statement. "The CMPD's goal is to staff the security and traffic direction positions on a voluntary basis with sworn staff working in an off-duty capacity. For events that are not fully staffed by off-duty personnel, the CMPD coordinates with division commanders to staff the events with on-duty personnel. The division commanders work to ensure they retain sufficient coverage for their respective divisions while allocating their staff to support the coverage at the BOA stadium."
The agency reiterated during the two home preseason games where CMPD used 82 and 74 on-duty officers for traffic and security, "data indicates that there was no service impact involving delayed response times for emergency calls for service."
After WCNC Charlotte's discovery, City Council Member Dimple Ajmera started asking questions, too.
"We have to ensure that public safety is our always our No. 1 priority, there is no delay in response time," the Safe Communities Committee Vice Chair said. "I reached out to our fire department and police department."
In a statement, CFD suggested its current staffing woes preclude the department from using overtime firefighters to work special events.
"The Charlotte Fire Department has the responsibility to make sure all Charlotte residents, spectators and visitors to the City are safe during special events at Bank of America Stadium and other venues based on crowd size," CFD said. "We make it a priority to have four firefighters on each company and maintain 268 personnel on duty, both for effectiveness and safety. When staffing levels allow, we will utilize personnel on overtime to staff special events. Just like many public safety departments, our staffing is stressed due to COVID positive personnel, quarantines, stress, and fatigue. There will be times when we must utilize on duty companies to ensure public safety at these events and still maintain safe and effective coverage throughout the City."
Following WCNC Charlotte's questions, Police Chief Johnny Jennings shared a video with officers. In the video, he assured the department the City of Charlotte is looking for long-term solutions as to "making sure that we are able to provide adequate staffing for these events as well as making sure that we don't compromise the staffing that we have and the resources needed out for every day regular patrol."
"This is really important to me," Chief Jennings said.
The chief added members of CMPD, CFD, the Charlotte Department of Transportation, along with other city officials, have spent the last year working on this issue to ensure "we're doing this appropriately and that we're making sure that we're taking care of our citizens as well as taking care of those that are trying to enjoy an event."
The chief said that management team is assessing how other cities provide security for large events in hopes of learning from them.
"There will be some changes made, but it's gonna take time. This doesn't happen overnight," Chief Jennings said.
WCNC Charlotte asked if City Manager Marcus Jones would be willing to talk with us about the issue on-camera. The city declined to make him available for an interview.