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New CMPD Chief Jennings: 'We Have To Work Together'

Johnny Jennings
David Flower
City of Charlotte
Johnny Jennings is introduced as the new CMPD chief at a press conference last month, as outgoing chief Kerr Putney looks on.

In five days, Charlotte Deputy Police Chief Johnny Jennings will be sworn in as the new chief of the department. He was supposed to take over in September, but Chief Kerr Putney is retiring earlier than expected since the majority of the Republican National Convention moved from Charlotte to Jacksonville, Florida.

Jennings has been with CMPD since 1992 and was named a deputy chief in 2016. He takes over at a time when the department is struggling with violent crime, fatal police shootings, protests against police brutality and racism and the coronavirus. Jennings says collaboration will be the core of his leadership style.

Johnny Jennings: I'm going to be getting feedback and input from not only internally, but externally. You know, ultimately I do have the say as a police chief, but I will not be making that in a vacuum. And that's not to say that wasn't Chief Putney's style. But I want to be a little bit more deliberate about that and to be able to put things in place that (are) not just my decision or a small group's decision, but entire decision based on teamwork.

Gwendolyn Glenn: And positions you've held (are) support services and others. You've worked closely with the community. And I'm sure you know that there's a lot of distrust in some communities regarding the police. How do you plan to work on that particular area -- trust -- in terms of the police?

Jennings: First of all, that the community needs to know that we hear them. The police authority is given to us by the people. So we really have to accept the fact that the people should have a say in how they are policed. So there's a lot of things that I think we can do better. You know, more dialogue that's not necessarily based on a call for service or when somebody is having their worst moment or a bad moment. Let's have some interactions where it's just one-on-one conversations. Where, you know, you might see someone out doing some work in the yard and an officer may want to get out and have that casual conversation. The more walking beat. I want to be involved in more of the smaller groups as well, not just forums with 300-400 people and you don't really get the intimate contact that you should have or that's necessarily there when you have groups of 30 or 40 people.

Glenn: So you plan to be out there on the streets as well? As well as more officers on the streets, on bikes, walking?

Jennings: Yeah. You know, I plan on being in the community. You know, it's a little bit difficult and challenging right now, had it not been for COVID. But as we practice social distancing, my goal is to get out there, whether it's virtually through smaller groups and bigger areas. That's the only way that the community is going to get to know who I am and what my vision is.

Glenn: What are your thoughts in terms of using chemicals on protesters? Because the protests have been continuing.

Jennings: My thoughts on that, and it's difficult because esthetics in how it looks when it comes to using riot control agents, it doesn't look good at all. I've done some surveys throughout multiple agencies throughout the country as far as their use of chemical munitions or riot control agents. And I will tell you, the alternatives, I think, are worse. Because a lot of the agencies that I've spoken with, their alternatives are rubber bullets or wooden dowel bullets and "hands on" effect, which means that you're going to send officers in and put hands on people that will also increase chances for injury and everything else.

The riot control agents are an irritant. It's set up to give you an uncomfortable feeling, but then it goes away. It's not set to injure. And so if we have to use other means, and that also includes not engaging at all. And that's also a danger to the protesters and rioters. So we really have to take a hard look at that. What does it mean when we say we're not going to use riot control agents?

Glenn: Now, what about training of police officers? Because that has been an issue and people have criticized the training, especially when it comes to police shootings, fatal shootings. Will there be any changes in training and also changes in training when it comes to the African American community and the Latino community?

Jennings: That's interesting because, you know, we hear "training" all the time. Every time there's an incident or something happens, there's always criticism of the training. Well, I'm going to go even further and say we need to get out of the idea of training and think about more education.

Now, I can send officers all day and they can be the best-trained officers on implicit bias and de-escalation and all of that. But if they don't practice it on the street, then that training just goes out the window. It's not good. Officers need to know that there are times when you have to look at the job as far as what you are doing at that moment and say, "What are the ramifications? Is it worth chasing that person who might have been resisting you? Can you just go back and get that person later when everything's calmed down?"

Glenn: Well, let me ask you this, because some have said there are officers who maybe should have been weeded out in the early stages. What are your thoughts in terms of that?

Jennings: We have a very profound early intervention system that we set up through the University of Chicago. And we're one of, I think, six agencies that they worked with on this. So we have ways that we can identify those top 10% officers to intervene early in hopes that we can identify who they are. And then we can set stuff in place so that we can avoid future incidents or things that might lead to violations of our rules of conduct.

Glenn: Any updates on the Beatties Ford Road incident? And just quickly, tell me your biggest challenge at this point?

Jennings: Beatties Ford Road, the update: Unfortunately, we don't have much at this point. We are still looking for witnesses to come forward and hope that that does happen.

My biggest challenge? I think the biggest challenge is the collaboration piece and that the people are looking for answers and change. But we have to bring everybody to the table, including our officers, to realize that it's not us against them and we have to work together. So I have the challenge of making sure that happens.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.