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WFAE's coverage of the case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Randall Kerrick charged with voluntary manslaughter in the death of Jonathan Ferrell. The court case ended in a mistrial.

CMPD Talks Citizen Rights And Use Of Force At Forums

Lisa Worf

Incidents in Ferguson, North Charleston, and several other cities across the country have put the spotlight on police treatment of African American men. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are trying a new tactic to help build trust in the community. It involves a lot of conversation and came at the suggestion of a barber.

Shaun Corbett hears a lot of gripes as a barber, including about the police.  Watching the events unfold in Ferguson got him thinking. 

“Being that I have an 18 year old son myself, I thought something had to be done to prevent a situation like that happening here,” says Corbett. 

He thought young black men should know how to react if stopped by the police and officers should know how it feels to be stopped.

That brought Corbett to a middle school gym in the Hidden Valley neighborhood Sunday. It’s the third forum Charlotte Mecklenburg police have held called “Hands up. What now?” Corbett mentioned the idea to his fellow barbers, including one who cuts Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s hair. Monroe decided to run with it.

Yesterday, Monroe wore jeans and fielded questions and comments from a group of about 100 people. Most of them were African American and many from neighborhoods with heavy police presence. He told them the department is focusing on training.    

“What skills, tactics can we employ upon our officers to help them to bring that temperature down, to back off in order for that situation to cool itself so that everyone can walk away,” said Monroe. 

In 2013, Charlotte Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, a young, unarmed black man. Kerrick was arrested right away. His voluntary manslaughter trial is set for this summer. 

That didn’t come up, but the shooting in North Charleston did. Monroe said murder is murder. There’s no reason to shoot a fleeing man who appears to be unarmed.

“What is the process of weeding out those officers that are just bad seeds?” asked one woman. 

Monroe explained the police department tracks all complaints and automatically flags any officer who receives a certain number over a two month period. Last year, he said he handed out over 8,000 hours worth of suspensions. 

“If someone mistreats you in a way you do not believe is correct, you have to say something. African American males between the ages of 16 and 25 years old are the least likely individuals to ever complain on a police officer,” Monroe told them.    

They’re also the most likely to get searched by Charlotte Mecklenburg police, more than two times more likely than white males of the same age. That’s according to a recent UNC Chapel Hill analysis of twelve years of CMPD data.

Monroe says that doesn’t point to discrimination. He says those stops and searches coincide with areas, many of them minority, that have a lot of crime.

There were only a few teenagers and young men in the audience. 

Captain Rob Dance tried to give people a feel for why those searches happen and how to respond to them with a training video.

A police officer approaches two teenagers after hearing about break-ins in the neighborhood. He asks if he can check their backpacks.   

“The only way that we can determine who may be breaking into some homes or who’s in the area that doesn’t live in the area is to get out and talk with people,” said Dance.

That often means stopping and asking to search innocent people. He told them people can’t be forced to consent to a search and they can video tape interactions with police. He understands how these stops can lead to tense situations, but urged people to obey police and complain later. 

“We make mistakes every day, but I just ask that we don’t try to settle the situation out there because it never ends well,” said Dance. 

Bobby Howard tried out a simulator officers train on to learn when to use force.  He lives just off Freedom Drive in west Charlotte and was stopped and searched a lot as a young man. 

“Most neighborhoods, they always pull you over. They stop you. They frisk you because they say you’re in a drug-infested area. Okay, well, everything’s drug infested. If that’s the case, you can stop anyone any time,” said Howard.

He’s nearing 50 now and says he doesn’t get stopped as much.  But he plans to tell the young men in his neighborhood, if stopped, to always keep their hands where police can see them. After all, he says, police have their own fears.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.