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Crime & Justice

Police Pullback: How Arrests, Citations Plummeted In Charlotte

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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Over the last decade, CMPD is making far fewer arrests and writing far fewer citations. The decline has continued during the pandemic.

In the last decade, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have made a quiet and dramatic change: Officers are making far fewer arrests and writing far fewer citations.

In 2009, in Rodney Monroe’s second year as chief, CMPD made 32,081 arrests, according to records provided to WFAE.

That number has ticked downward each year, reaching 16,401 people in 2018. After increasing slightly in 2019, the number of arrests plummeted again in 2020 during the pandemic, to 14,535.

And for the first quarter of 2021, arrests were down nearly 30% compared to the same period a year ago.

What's behind the drop? Several factors, including a change in law enforcement strategy.

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Johnny Jennings became chief last summer. He said the department can’t go back to what he calls "no-tolerance policing" that was prevalent when he was a member of CMPD’s street crimes task force in the Belmont neighborhood in the mid-1990s.

“We would arrest anyone for anything that we can,” Jennings said. “The goal would be to clear people off the streets. We would make arrests for drug paraphernalia. There was no tolerance. There was no issue with profiling.”

Across the nation, arrests are down 21% over the last decade, according to the FBI’s uniform crime database.

Charlotte’s decrease — 46% — is more than twice the national average.

Jennings said he supports CMPD’s pullback.

“The answer is not to go in and arrest everyone’s uncles, brothers, fathers,” he said. “The younger generation sees that and it’s the norm. Policing will never get back to the point where we say 'no tolerance.'"

The drop is due to several factors: A change in law enforcement strategy, officers saying arrests are too time-consuming and not worth the trouble, and an unwillingness of officers to do what they call “proactive policing” — interacting with people unless they are responding to a call.

A Change In Strategy

Yolián Ortiz is a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police in Charlotte. She said the group supports some police reforms but is worried that officers are becoming too hesitant about "normal" policing.

“Proactive policing has shown that it can definitely bring crime levels down,” Ortiz said. “You know, having that police officer sitting at the street level makes that criminal think twice about getting into your house. And if the community continues to ask for less policing, we are going to see an increase in crime, unfortunately.”

Officers said the decrease is due, in part, to a change in law enforcement philosophy in which officers are focusing on violent crime – not small, “quality of life” crimes like loitering or trespassing. The idea of focusing on minor infractions became popular in New York City in the early 1990s. It led to a dramatic reduction in crime but also complaints of harassment and racial profiling.

And the officers said it’s driven by the social justice movements that began seven years ago after the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown.

“I can sit here and say, 'No, I think our officers have a job to do and they are going to go out and do it,' but I think that’s naïve to think that doesn’t go through an officer’s mind when they are out there,” Jennings said. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What I want our officers to do is think about what you are trying to accomplish before you get involved in something.”

In Charlotte, the number of arrests for all races and ethnicities has declined, though the rates for white people have fallen faster than for Black residents.

While overall arrests are down 55% since 2010, the arrests of African Americans are down 51%.

For white people, it’s more, at 64%.

And it’s not just arrests that are down. There is another tool officers have for misdemeanors instead of making an arrest: writing citations.

Citations are usually used for traffic violations, but they can also be written for misdemeanors like prostitution, loitering and larceny. Defendants must still show up for court, but a citation is less disruptive than an arrest.

Citations are also falling, from 97,000 in 2009 to 44,000 in 2018. Citations increased to 55,000 in 2019, but have fallen again to 33,000 during the pandemic.

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WFAE/CMPD data

One Officer's Experience

Dustin Lawrence, who is Black, has been a CMPD officer for five years. He works in the Central Division in uptown. The department made him available to WFAE to talk about his decisions on whether to make an arrest.

He said possessing small amounts of marijuana is an example of a crime that doesn’t concern officers today as much as it did when he started in 2016.

CMPD records bear that out: Officers made 693 arrests in 2009 in which possessing marijuana was the sole charge. That fell to 55 arrests in 2019 and to 18 arrests in 2020.

A common problem in Central, Lawrence said, is larceny. He said he’ll often get calls at the midtown Target.

“Say you stole a pack of gum or some ibuprofen and ... you don’t have an arrest history of chronic larcenies," Lawrence said. "You have that discretion to say, 'I will write you a citation (instead of an arrest).'”

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Dustin Lawrence said some arrests are more trouble than they are worth.

He said one factor in deciding whether to make an arrest is time.

Officers said that processing an inmate once took 15-30 minutes at the jail. Officers now must show probable cause before a magistrate — something that generally takes two hours and can take up to four hours if magistrates are busy.

Lawrence also said it’s sometimes dispiriting to believe that someone needs to be arrested — and then to see them on the street again an hour later. That’s due, he said, to the lack of a bond now needed for most offenses.

Three years ago, former Mecklenburg County Chief District Court Judge Regan Miller moved away from cash bail, arguing it was an unconstitutional punishment before someone had been convicted.

“I understand that a trespass — they didn’t kill anyone, I get it,” Lawrence said. “They don’t need to sit in jail for a week with a trespass (charge). But it can be frustrating at times, sometimes, again, if you feel that that person has committed a higher-level crime and they are allowed to just walk out. It can get a little frustrating.”

'We Don't Do Proactive Policing Anymore'

WFAE also interviewed three active duty white officers who are members of the Fraternal Order of the Police. Because they did not have the authorization to speak with the news media, they asked not to be named.

The officers said that having fewer arrests was not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s kept some people out of jail for minor offenses. They said that after Ferguson, they subtly changed how they do their jobs, usually only responding to calls.

“We don’t do proactive policing anymore,” said one officer with 27 years of experience.

CMPD tracks encounters between officers and members of the public, whether it’s an arrest or just a conversation between an officer and a resident.

Those records show that police encounters started declining after Ferguson, dropping by 7.5% from 2014-2019. When examined in the context of population growth, the decline was larger, at 19%.

CMPD officials said privately the data on encounters is not the most accurate data because how it’s collected differs by division and depends in large part on how willing an officer is to record every encounter.

The department recently announced it was hiring a national consultant, the DiJulius Group, to train officers in “customer service.” DiJulius lists Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza as its clients.

The Fraternal Order of Police has questioned that decision.

“We fear they will make changes that are not concurrent with the law, putting officers and the community at risk,” the local order said in a statement. "... Officers are professionals, working to treat everyone with dignity and respect. They train on how to engage and communicate in a vastly diverse set of scenarios.

"Unfortunately, cordial engagement during an arrest is not likely to be reciprocated. When it comes to compliance with the law, the 'customer' is not always right.”

In an email sent to staff last week, Jennings wrote: “The term customer service on its face may not land well in all corners of the department. The term may conjure up the notion that we will be expected to placate a violent criminal element by limiting our commitment to community safety. That notion is patently incorrect.”

What Do Charlotte Residents See?

John Wall is the president of the community association for Hidden Valley, one of the city’s largest neighborhoods.

Hidden Valley, located off West Sugar Creek Road, is in CMPD’s North Tryon Division, where arrests are down 47% since 2009. Two decades ago, the area was notorious for crime and synonymous with gang activity.

Wall said Hidden Valley is much safer today, and he said he has a good relationship with officers who patrol the area.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
John Wall lives in Hidden Valley. He said his neighborhood is safer than 20 years ago, though he's concerned about what he calls "aggressive" panhandling at West Sugar Creek Road and Interstate 85.

But he said there are some quality-of-life issues that are concerning, such as seeing more abandoned cars.

Wall said he’s especially concerned about loitering near the hotels and businesses near Sugar Creek Road and Interstate 85, one of the city’s highest crime areas.

“And it’s an issue because you have these people, and they have become more aggressive and assertive," Wall said. "They used to stand with a sign that said, ‘I’m homeless.’ Now they come to your car and they knock on your windows. That’s aggressive to me.”

Grant Withers lives in South End, near Mac’s Speed Shop restaurant and Remount Road. He spoke to City Council recently about drag racing and people revving their engines late at night. He wants CMPD to stop the nuisances.

“It’s frustrating,” Withers said. “There are people all in my building who hear it. I try and call and complain, but they want me to call the nonemergency number, and that closes at 8.”

The Strategy's Effect On Crime

Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who has written in Bloomberg’s City Lab that there is a link between police departments deemphasizing quality of life offenses and an increase in more serious crime.

“If there was no connection between policing and crime, I don’t know why anyone would bother funding a police department,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that criminals do change their behavior based on the expectation of being stopped, asked a few questions and possibly being arrested.”

Richard Rosenfeld is a professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has studied the decline in arrests nationally and doesn’t believe there has necessarily been a connection between rising homicide rates.

“I would say, 'Case not proved,'” he said.

He said that in cities like Charlotte, arrests started declining early last decade, yet homicides didn’t increase until the end of the decade.

“I wouldn’t reject the argument that there has been some impact on homicide,” Rosenfeld said. “We don’t really know about 2020 yet, where we saw that big increase in homicide. But the available evidence suggests that the impact, if there is one, is perhaps pretty small.”

In addition to Charlotte, Rosenfeld said other cities have moved away from cash bail in the last three or four years. He said he wants to see a definitive study on whether that change has led to an increase in killings.

Robert Dawkins is the political director of Action NC. He has pushed for policy changes at CMPD, such as banning no-knock warrants, having more deescalation training and expanding violence-interruption programs.

Dawkins has not looked in detail at arrest data and wasn’t aware that arrest and citations have declined.

Dawkins said he agrees with the theory that more aggressive policing can lower crime — but only in the short term.

He compared that strategy to the U.S. military adopting aggressive tactics in Afghanistan.

“By breaking into people’s houses, beating them up, grabbing their kids, taking them down for some kind of interrogation — people will have no respect for you,” Dawkins said. “There will probably be less terrorism in Afghanistan during the hard-charging, kick in the doors, 'We don’t even speak your language, we are grabbing your son until we figure out if he’s a terrorist.' You know, it might have went down for a little while, but it didn’t fix the problem.”

Dawkins went on to make a comparison.

“It’s the same thing rolling up outside a corner where people are hanging a corner," he said. "What violence interrupters need to work on is how to get you off the corner. The police showing up four-deep in a car and saying, 'We are going to beat everyone if they aren’t off the corner in 10 minutes' is not going to work.”


More On This Story

WFAE reporter Steve Harrison joined "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry to talk more about this story. Here's a transcript of their conversation.

MARSHALL TERRY: Steve, these numbers are pretty dramatic. When did you first notice what was going on at CMPD?

STEVE HARRISON: It was about expired tags, really. I’ve lived in Charlotte 15 years, and when I first moved here, I let my car registration expire. And almost instantaneously, I got pulled over by the police. Then, probably a decade later, it happened again — expired tags. And this time, nothing. Police would be right behind me in traffic and no stop. They just weren’t interested in getting involved with something like a registration.

And I figured, is this just about vehicle registration, or is there something bigger going on here?

TERRY: But these arrest numbers haven’t gotten a lot of attention. Why is that?

HARRISON: A lot of people in Charlotte really have no idea how arrests and citations have plummeted. I’ve talked to some City Council members who are somewhat aware, while others really had no idea people are making fewer arrests. Same with activists, attorneys.

The conversation around CMPD has understandably been about training and deescalation after the 2013 police shooting of Jonathan Ferrell and the 2016 shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

But I think arrests and citations are part of that discussion. Look at it this way: If arrests had stayed the same since 2009 each year, CMPD would have made 117,000 more arrests than they actually did. And there would have been 342,000 more citations.

Some of those arrests would have been repeat offenders. But that’s thousands of people who weren’t put into the so-called criminal justice pipeline.

TERRY: So, arrests are way down. Could it just be that crime is down as well?

HARRISON: I’ve thought a lot about that. And I think there are a few factors against that theory. One is that felony arrests have been pretty stable. There’s still bad stuff happening. And of course, homicides have gone up in the last three years.

Then look at drugs. CMPD has all but stopped arresting people for possessing marijuana. The department made 693 arrests for possession in 2009. That fell to 55 arrests in 2019 and to 18 arrests in 2020.

I don’t think that’s because people have stopped getting high.

And just one more thing: If you look across the city, the arrests are down everywhere. It’s not just affluent areas where the police have pulled back.

But there is a disparity in terms of how fast arrests are declining. The arrests of African Americans are down 51% over the decade. Whites are down more, at 64%.

TERRY: And it seems CMPD Chief Jennings embraces this lighter touch. And he’s even hired a new consultant to train officers, right?

HARRISON: That’s right. They are called the DiJulius Group, and they are going to train officers in “customer service.” DiJulius lists Starbucks and Domino’s Pizza as its clients.

The idea is that police have about 600,000 encounters a year, and only a small number are for violent crimes. So, the department is saying, "Let's have most of these be customer friendly."

The (Fraternal Order of Police) has questioned that decision, saying, “We fear they will make changes that are not concurrent with the law, putting officers and the community at risk.” It added that “when it comes to compliance with the law, the 'customer' is not always right.”

In an email sent to staff last week, Jennings wrote that the term customer service may not “land well” among officers, but he said it’s “patently incorrect” that CMPD will “placate” a “violent criminal element.”

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