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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 Hears Fears From Charlotte Residents At Forum

  The recent fatal police shootings of African-American men and the killing of five Dallas police officers have revived discussions aimed at easing tensions between CMPD officers and those Charlotte residents who are wary of them.  At a forum hosted by the NAACP in uptown last night, several hundred people questioned and criticized CMPD. There was also some praise.  

CMPD Police Kerr Putney has responded to the recent shootings by talking all over the city about the tension between police and citizens. He says it's personal.

"I feel this conversation more than you know it. It ain't a lot of sleep for the old Putney household right now cause I carry this everywhere I go,” said Putney.

Wednesday's forum was different. Putney largely listened.

“I've been talking a lot. Now it's time to open my ears, to hear directly from you, from your perspective,” he said.

The crowd at Little Rock AME Zion Church was mostly African-American. They brought emotions, complaints, and fears. 

“I was informed that cops are trained to kill, and I just wanted to know if that's true, and how you guys feel about all that's happening?” asked 17-year-old Tee Reeves.

“She deserves a hand y'all,” said Putney and the crowd applauded.

The chief handed the mic to his executive officer, Brian Cunningham, who said the recent killings made him sick.

“When I see something like that, where an officer misbehaves, we're hurting as a department. We're hurting as a profession. This is a different time in policing, it really is. This hard conversation needs to happen,” said Cunningham.

Lt. Dave Robinson took the microphone and began talking about police visits to CMS high schools. But Putney pounded the table and pressed Reeves’s question.

"Don't forget the question. How does that make you feel?" said Putney.

"Makes me feel great that we're doing that..." began Robinson.

"No, that wasn't her question, " Putney interrupted. "One more time ma'am."

"How do the deaths make you feel?" asked Reeves.

"The deaths hurt me," said Robinson.

Many in the crowd said they don't trust police. Some had grievances about family members injured or killed by CMPD officers. Others had questions about how the department works or ideas for changes. A few said they're afraid of police.

“I'm scared...I'm scared of being in y'all's presence right now. I'm scared of you guys and I'm also scared for you," said Ayana Crawford.

That prompted Capt. Chuck Henson to say: “Can I ask you to come over here. Come back this way.”

She walked over and sat beside Henson, a captain in northeast Charlotte who’s white.

“It's not too bad, is it?,” he said, drawing laughter. “Hi, I'm Chuck.”

“I'm Aryana,” she said.

Then he got emotional.  

"Chief Putney said we need to come from the heart. Well, here it comes....I hate that she feels that way. That breaks my heart,” said Henson, his voice breaking.

He said he loves the city and his job and he does it for people like Crawford.

There was tension too. Early on, the mother of Jonathan Ferrell spoke via internet video from Florida. Ferrell was shot to death by a CMPD officer in 2013 after he got into a car accident and went to a house in northeast Charlotte seeking help. Georgia Ferrell asked Putney how the department is forcing change.

Putney directed his answer as much at his officers as the audience about the kind of person who should not be on the force.  

“If you can't connect with people who don't look like you, who don't work with you, who are in a different income bracket, you have some internal soul searching to do,” Putney said.

In response to another question, Putney brought a sense of history.

“It took me a while to acknowledge, that the system, the institution for which I work, has a history of racist, bigoted action...not conversation, action,” he said. That drew more applause.

The police force is 80 percent white. Putney is trying to recruit more black and Latino officers, but he said change will take years.

Another man wanted specifics about what police are doing to change the climate.

“What is CMPD planning on doing to make us feel more comfortable?” he asked.

Education said Putney. Over the next year, all supervisors will be trained on how to interact with people of different races and cultures.  But even before then, officers will go into neighborhoods to get to know people.

“What we're doing over the next 90 days is we're going to hit the pause button. Because cops in this jurisdiction, especially those on the night shift, second and third, are going to come out and meet you, where you live, talk to you. I want you to get to know where they come from and have them feel where you're coming from,” said Putney.

He said citizens need to do the same. He called volunteers to join what he called "a citizen academy" that will learn about the way the department works.

That drew a round of applause, and sent lots of hands into the air.

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.