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CMPD Chief Says Tear Gas Ban Would Lead To Officers Using Brute Force, With Shields And Batons

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney on June 3 answers questions about his officers' use of tear gas during protests.
David Boraks
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney on June 3 answers questions about his officers' use of tear gas during protests.

A proposal by at-large Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston to prohibit Charlotte police from buying more tear gas faces a tough road to passage Monday, but council members may support a resolution that seeks to have CMPD align with policies from a national organization, Campaign Zero.

CMPD Chief Kerr Putney has warned that prohibiting the purchase of tear gas would make his department resort to “brute physical force” to disperse crowds.

Putney says the most recent Charlotte protests over George Floyd’s death have been mostly peaceful. But he said early on, his officers were hit with “frozen bottles of water, liquids, including what appeared to be soured milk. Bricks. Chunks of concrete.”

“We’ve been assaulted in a number of ways,” he added. 

That led to police throwing flash bangs, shooting pepper balls and deploying tear gas.

During Tuesday night’s march protesters allege that police intentionally trapped and then gassed them on West 4th Street, which was recorded on video by the news site Queen City Nerve.

That’s under review by the State Bureau of Investigation, and it led Winston, a Democrat, to ask his colleagues on City Council to stop CMPD from buying any more tear gas.

“No chemical weapons should be used on a human being by another human being anywhere in this world. That definitely includes the streets of Charlotte,” Winston said on a Facebook video Saturday.

Without tear gas, Putney said police will have confrontations with protesters similar to clashes from the 1960s, when police beat civil rights demonstrators.

“Birmingham, Alabama,” Putney said. “All day Long.”

He said his officers would resort to “brute physical force, with shields and batons.”

“And those kinds of things that harken back to what it looked like in the '50s and '60s when we were fighting for civil rights,” he said. “And up against tactics that I believe were inhumane.”

The North Carolina Democratic Party passed a resolution Saturday calling for elected officials to ban the use of “chemical agents” by local law enforcement.

But on Facebook, Winston wrote Saturday that he still doesn’t have six votes for the gas prohibition to pass the council, which has a 9-2 Democratic majority.

At-large council member Julie Eiselt, a Democrat, said Winston called her Friday morning about his idea. She said she asked him if he was willing to wait on announcing his plan to try and tweak his idea to get a majority of council to go along. She was disappointed when she received a campaign email 90 minutes later announcing his tear-gas prohibition.

Democrat Malcolm Graham, another possible swing vote, said he’s upset about the 4th Street video but is unlikely to vote yes.

“Council has done no research, no homework, no data collection on this topic at all,” he said. “So I want to make sure that whatever decisions we make is done with information, background and thoughtful discussion so we know all the consequences for having it and not having it.”

Faced with a demand to do something, council members may support a proposal from Democratic council member Larken Egleston. His resolution that seeks to align police policies with “8Can’tWait” proposals from Campaign Zero, a national organization seeking to end police violence.

It has eight policy proposals – many of which are already CMPD policy, like requiring de-escalation, reporting all violence and to exhaust all alternatives before shooting.

Other parts of the proposals involve gray areas, like shooting at moving vehicles and chokeholds. At CMPD, chokeholds are prohibited unless an officer feels that it’s “reasonably necessary.”

Though Winston’s proposal could fail, there is a split between Putney and council that’s the largest it’s been in his five years as chief.

During a closed session meeting with Putney on Wednesday, council asked him who gave the order to deploy gas on Tuesday. He told them he did. He said the same thing in an interview.

“I’m the only one in the organization who can authorize the use of chemical munitions,” he said. “And then the tactical deployment is based on my global authorization based on the policy we have in place. So it starts and stops with me. People want to make someone as a scapegoat. You are talking to the only scapegoat when it comes to the use of chemical munitions.”

After that closed session meeting, Mayor Vi Lyles and some council members met with protesters at the plaza outside the Government Center.

Putney also came out – though the mayor and council members did not stand with him.

“I stand alone when I need to,” Putney said. “Right now, I’m standing for out of seven days – six fantastic days where our people have acted without error. So for me to expect others to stand with me, that’s not something I really think about or care about quite frankly.”

Putney announced earlier this year he would retire after the Republican National Convention in August.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.