City Council will soon decide whether real change is coming to law enforcement in Charlotte.
What’s been done so far is not encouraging.
Consider, for example, how elected officials and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department leaders described the city’s recent compliance with the 8 Can’t Wait initiative, a suite of minimalist changes advanced by Campaign Zero, which advocates nationwide for police reform.
When CMPD announced its compliance last month with the campaign’s use-of-force restrictions, which simply seek to prevent cops from strangling, needlessly shooting, or senselessly inflicting violence on people, city leaders treated the matter as a real accomplishment.
Councilman Larken Egleston, who chairs the city’s public safety committee, said he was “very excited” that Charlotte “managed to check all those boxes.” He added, “I hope this doesn’t go unrecognized.”
CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings said he was “happy to announce” the department was “officially in compliance with all of the 8 Can’t Wait talking points.”
Their words were telling: boxes checked and “talking points” is not the language of fundamental reform.
So it has gone in Charlotte since local leaders began the work several months ago of “reimagining” policing.
Meaningless change started soon after protests erupted in Charlotte this summer in response to police officers’ murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On June 2, CMPD officers and leaders conspired to unleash a chemical weapons attack on citizen-protesters. Video footage and police radio chatter confirmed the assault was deliberately undertaken and worked according to plan, with hundreds of people corralled into an attack zone established by the cops for the sole purpose of inflicting brutality.
A week later, in response to criticism of CMPD’s assault on citizens, City Council prohibited the department from using any funds during the 2020-21 fiscal year to purchase chemical weapons.
A temporary, one-year pause on the department’s purchase of such weapons would have been a minimalist step — if it actually stopped CMPD from doing something the cops intended to do.
But it didn’t: There was no money in the department’s 2020-21 budget to buy chemical weapons.
City Council barred CMPD from doing something it had no plans to do. The step wasn’t minimal, but purely symbolic.
Around the same time, then-Chief Kerr Putney announced a change to CMPD policy that imposed a so-called duty to intervene. The department had rejected previous calls to adopt such a policy, which imposes an obligation on officers to step in if they witness their colleagues engaging in brutality.
That Putney reconsidered seemed like a good move — until you read the fine print.
CMPD’s policy now requires officers to intervene if they see their colleagues engage in “egregious behavior that shocks the conscience.”
As Julian Wright, an attorney for the city’s Citizens Review Board, which reviews some complaints against police officers, explained after the new policy was announced, “It’s not a standard that’s used or applied very often.”
In other words, the new duty to intervene, as a practical matter, is unlikely to actually require an officer to intervene because officers will rarely, if ever, encounter circumstances that meet the standard articulated in the policy.
City Council made a related change in August, when it added to the jurisdiction of the Citizens Review Board the power to review allegations that officers failed to follow the duty-to-intervene policy.
The board can’t issue subpoenas, which necessarily limits its powers of investigation. It also has no authority to take any action against officers who it concludes behaved badly. It can only offer its opinion that an officer has done something wrong.
Furthermore, in the nearly 100 cases the board has heard over its roughly twenty-year existence, only twice has the board concluded that an officer behaved improperly. And in those cases, because the board doesn’t actually have the power to do anything, nothing came of its decisions.
A toothless duty-to-intervene policy is unlikely to suddenly change the board’s disposition. And even if it did, the board can’t do anything but register its opinion.
The city’s Citizens Review Board played a part in another so-called reform.
CMPD announced in August that all officers would be fitted with holster monitors that register when they pull their guns. Department policy was also changed to require officers to report when they pull their weapons, why they did so, and whether they pointed their guns at anyone.
These policies changes were touted as an example of increasing accountability, which, at first glance, would seem to be correct.
At the same time the city announced these changes, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano explained the department wouldn’t review every instance of an officer drawing his weapon.
CMPD will be gathering information about pulling weapons and then doing nothing with the information. This is akin to administering COVID tests to every cop and then declining to review the results.
What’s more, Tufano explained that CMPD will consider an officer’s decision to pull his weapon to be not a “use of force,” but a “show of force,” a seemingly semantic distinction.
Except it’s not.
The Citizens Review Board is empowered to hear only a limited universe of officer-related complaints. Within the Board’s jurisdiction are complaints that an officer violated CMPD’s use of force of policy. Not so regarding shows of force.
The department’s decision to characterize officers’ pulling their weapons as shows of force, and not uses of force, seems to be a way to insulate officers’ actions from review by an entity outside CMPD.
Chief Jennings announced at last week’s public safety committee meeting that CMPD would no longer “pursue or initiate” so-called no-knock warrants, which result in police officers breaking down people’s doors without announcing themselves — often with tragic consequences. (This kind of warrant resulted in the recent death of Breonna Taylor.)
“This is a practice CMPD does not typically do. However, it is within our policy that we’re able to conduct no-knock search warrants,” Jennings said. “We came to the conclusion … that we would no longer allow for no-knock warrants within CMPD.”
This policy change is meaningless for at least two reasons.
First, as Jennings explained, CMPD doesn’t actually execute no-knock warrants, even if the department’s policy allows such warrants. So the change in policy will result in little, if any, change in practice.
Second, and probably more important, Jennings did not say CMPD would no longer participate in the execution of no-knock warrants. Rather, he said CMPD wouldn’t “pursue or initiate” no-knock warrants or allow no-knock warrants “within CMPD.”
Under the standard Jennings articulated, CMPD can still be involved in the execution of no-knock warrants — for example, if the department were part of a multi-jurisdictional task force or were partnering with another agency. It’s just that another agency would need to “pursue or initiate” securing the warrant.
For both reasons, no real change will come from this policy revision.
Jennings also announced last week that CMPD will no longer use tear gas as a “riot control agent.” Instead, he explained, the department will rely on pepper spray to disperse protesters.
Then he engaged in some word play.
Pepper spray, he said, “is a natural irritant.” He later said pepper spray is “a natural agent made out of peppers basically.”
Ditching tear gas means CMPD has “pulled the chemical agent when it comes to riot control and dispersal of crowds,” Jennings said, hoping we will conclude that because CMPD has vowed to stop using tear gas on people, the department has stopped using chemical weapons.
Pepper spray, no less than tear gas, is a chemical weapon — no matter that the chemical comes from peppers — and its use as a weapon of war is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Furthermore, any suggestion that pepper spray is not dangerous is contrary to recent experience in Charlotte, where women exposed to the chemical reported menstrual cramps and bleeding.
CMPD will still be using dangerous chemical weapons against the people of Charlotte, which is nothing to celebrate.
Egleston saw it differently, praising Jennings for the move: “It’s major, and I’m excited about it,” he said. “I hope it does build public trust and shows that we are listening and you are listening.”
But it’s not major. Nothing City Council or CMPD has done so far is major.
City Council stopped the cops from buying chemical weapons they had no intention of buying.
CMPD adopted a duty-to-intervene policy that, for all practical purposes, imposes no duty to intervene.
City Council empowered the impotent Citizens Review Board to offer its opinion on cases arising under the impossible-to-violate duty-to-intervene policy.
CMPD said it won’t strangle or choke people, or needlessly shoot people, or jump straight to violence against people.
The department said it will monitor when officers pull their guns, but will do nothing with the collected data — while shielding officers’ actions from external review.
It also said it won’t be the lead agency when seeking or executing no-knock warrants.
And it won’t use one kind of chemical weapon — while expressly stating its intention to continue using others.
This isn’t meaningful change, but the mere appearance of change put forth by illusionists who hope we won’t notice.