Police and the killings of unarmed civilians

September 21, 2013 

The tragic death of an unarmed black man, shot 10 times by a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer, sent me scurrying for something I had written 17 years ago. “In the aftermath of the shooting of a Charlotte motorist last week at a traffic stop, I hope we can all agree on this – unarmed people stopped by police shouldn’t wind up dead.”

The tragic death of an unarmed black man, shot 10 times by a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer last week, sent me scurrying for something I had written 17 years ago.

It was in the fall of 1996. That time, an unarmed black man died when a white Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer fired five times at him when he got out of his car and reached back inside. The officer said he thought the man was reaching for a gun. The man’s 4-year-old daughter was in the back seat.

I wrote this then: “In the aftermath of the shooting of a Charlotte motorist last week at a traffic stop, I hope we can all agree on this – unarmed people stopped by police shouldn’t wind up dead.”

Today, following another tragedy, I repeat those words.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe was pretty clear that he believes the shooting could have been avoided. In explaining the department’s decision to charge Officer Randall Kerrick, 27, with voluntary manslaughter in the death of Jonathan Ferrell, 24, he explained that even if an assailant runs toward the police, that’s not ample reason for an officer to discharge a weapon:

“We have people charging at us everyday; we get in fights everyday, but at that point we’re not justified in using deadly force,” Monroe said.

A lot is still not known – at least publicly – about what happened in that shooting early Saturday. The investigation is ongoing. Kerrick’s lawyers contend he was justified. On Thursday, Mecklenburg District Attorney Andrew Murray asked the N.C. Attorney General’s Office to prosecute the case, citing a possible conflict.

This much is known: Three officers responded to a frantic 911 call from a woman who thought a man knocking her door at:30 a.m. was a robber. They encountered Ferrell, shoeless, on a road near the house. Ferrell walked then ran toward the officers, Monroe said. One officer fired a Taser, then Kerrick fired 12 shots, hitting Ferrell with 10.

After the shooting, police found Ferrell’s car crashed into an embankment. Ferrell had kicked out the back window to climb out of the mangled vehicle. He apparently walked a quarter mile up a hill to the nearby house to seek help, they speculate.

That probability makes the ensuing events all the more horrific.

It’s unknown whether race played a part in what happened Saturday. But as it was 17 years ago, race once again is a backdrop.

That’s hardly surprising. Repeated news accounts of unarmed black men being shot and killed by police fuel legitimate anxiety, anger and frustration among many people, especially African-Americans. That anger, frustration and anxiety should be taken seriously. People shouldn’t have to fear that the people whose job is to protect them might harm them instead.

It was that dangerously frayed sense of trust 17 years ago that pushed police and this community to make needed changes after a spate of unarmed civilians were killed by CMPD officers.

Not only did a civilian police review board arise out of those tragedies, but then-police chief Dennis Nowicki pushed new police training and more outreach to communities to engender more understanding of police officers’ work and protocols. It also spurred the expanded use of cameras in police cars.

For the past several months, there has been a push to give the Citizens Review Board more power. An Observer investigation earlier this year showed the board had looked at 79 cases without ever ruling against police. In most cases, it never conducted a hearing. Charlotte’s City Council is now reviewing the structure and duties of the board to see whether changes are needed.

As for the dash cams on police cars, this shooting seems to illustrate the shortcomings. Lawyers for the dead man and the officer expressed differing views of what the video footage shows – footage that police say they won’t make public yet because of the ongoing probe. But just before the shots are fired, the victim goes out of the camera’s range, leaving no evidence, other than the officers’ words, about how the final moments played out.

So, it is good to know that Charlotte police last month began testing cameras on police officers’ bodies to record their encounters. That would provide a more complete view of what happens as police do their jobs.

Nothing, though, can erase the horror and pain of the past weekend’s events. Georgia Ferrell’s moving expression of forgiveness for the police officer who killed her son is something we can all learn from. But this expectation she expressed, with red-rimmed eyes while clutching her son’s Winnie the Pooh doll, is a valid one: “I expected my son to bury me, not for me to bury him.”

Her words underscore what is apparent in many police shootings of unarmed civilians – too often young black men: The shootings are avoidable. That calls out for changes – in attitudes and actions.

Here’s how I ended that column 17 years ago: “Being a police officer is a dangerous, stressful and scary job. No one envies these officers their work, or the hard choices they must make in a moment’s time. But none of us should accept as inevitable that unarmed citizens will die during encounters with police. That’s the wrong outcome.” That’s still true.

MCT Information Services

Fannie Flono is a Charlotte Observer columnist.

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