New faces of excessive police force, race debate in North Carolina

Black community's tense relationship with cops dealt another blow after confusion leads to 'execution'-like shooting

Officer Randall Kerrick, left, faces a voluntary-manslaughter charge after shooting Jonathan Ferrell -- who was unarmed and looking for help after a car accident -- 10 times.
AP (2)

As a community attempts to unravel events that led to the death of an unarmed black man who was killed by a white police officer in a Charlotte, N.C., suburb while seeking help after a car accident, calls are intensifying for greater law enforcement oversight.

The shooting that ended in the death of Jonathan Ferrell was touched off by a 911 call to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department around 2:30 a.m. last Saturday after a woman called to report an attempted break-in. Home alone with a baby, she awoke to Ferrell knocking loudly on her door.

“There’s a guy breaking in my front door!” the caller said in near hysterics, describing events to the dispatcher. Ferrell, however, had been in a car accident and is thought to have been seeking help.

Police responding to the call located 24-year-old Ferrell, who they say ran toward them. Events quickly escalated and Officer Randall Kerrick drew his service weapon and shot at Ferrell a dozen times, missing only twice. Within hours, Kerrick was arrested and charged with voluntary manslaughter.

“Our investigation has shown that Officer Kerrick did not have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter,” the police department said in a press release.

“It’s an unbelievably tragic overuse of force,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation. The ACLU, alongside community activists, is calling for reform of the city’s Citizens Review Board to give the body teeth in investigating citizens’ complaints about police actions.

Brook cautioned that it remained unclear whether the shooting was racially motivated, but in a state where race remains a hugely sensitive issue, the possibility can't be ignored.  

“I think when you see an incident such as this when an unarmed young black man is shot 10 times, then you are obliged to ask the tough questions about what role race played in this incident,” he said.

Emerging patterns

Even before Ferrell’s death, perceptions of the city’s police force were beginning to show wear in Charlotte’s black community. Results of a citizen satisfaction survey conducted in the summer and released in a City Council memo just three days before Ferrell was killed found trends along racial lines. While about three-quarters of respondents had an overall positive impression of the police department, black people polled gave the lowest ratings, most notably when asked about police officers performing their job with integrity and honesty and using good judgment in the use of force.

The community – and not just the black community – feels like it was murder.

“In the last two or three years, we’ve had quite a few complaints about police behavior,” said the Rev. Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP. He said the organization has received “a rash of reports” of police harassment from certain areas of Charlotte, with allegations of such practices as police following black teenagers home while they walked through their neighborhoods.

“The parents were so intimidated that they didn’t want to come out and meet so we could talk about it and get an investigation,” Nantambu said.

The Charlotte police department was included in a two-year study (PDF), released in 2012 and funded by the National Institute of Justice, that examined force policies at select police agencies. Charlotte was characterized as having the worst policies among agencies studied, in terms of injuries to citizens and officers during forceful encounters. The study, however, noted that when comparing force with the number of reported crimes, Charlotte tended to use force less often than other agencies studied. Police in Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, were found to use force over seven times more often, the report found.

Calling the show of force against Ferrell “more like an execution,” Nantambu is calling for charges against Kerrick to be elevated to murder.

“He shot at him 12 times, struck him 10 times, and there were pauses -- blanks -- between the shooting, which means he had time to discern whether the man was down or incapacitated,” Nantambu said. “The community -- and not just the black community -- feels like it was murder.”

Video of the incident from a police dash camera, seen by Ferrell’s family and their attorney, has not yet been released publicly by police.

Overdue overhaul

Personnel records for Kerrick, which were provided to Al Jazeera America, give little background about his professional competency since joining the department in April 2011, when he was promoted from an animal control officer to a police recruit. Since that time, he steadily received pay increases, topping out at a salary of $44,482. Last December, the record notes, he was disciplined with an eight-hour suspension. The details of that suspension have not been made public, said Officer Jessica Wallin, a police spokeswoman.

Kerrick was the first of two Charlotte police officers arrested this week. In an unrelated incident, an officer was arrested Thursday and charged with eight counts of receiving property under false pretenses after allegedly falsifying timesheets while working off duty.

Matt Newton, a criminal defense attorney who is part of a coalition calling for an overhaul of the Citizens Review Board, hopes the group can help prevent tragedies such as Ferrell’s by re-establishing a connection between police and citizens. The group wants the review board to have subpoena power and its own budget, to show greater transparency of its procedures and to institute procedural fairness.

“This is everything we tried to prevent,” Newton said. “The purpose of the Citizens Review Board is to build a bond with the police force, a trust. When you have a perception that the police are discourteous, unprofessional, dishonest, that they do not use great judgment in their use of force … there’s an erosion of public trust in the department.”

According to a Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Clinic study this summer, the review board has received 78 complaints in the last 15 years, has conducted four hearings and has never ruled against the police department.

“The citizens of Charlotte should be allowed to review the actions of their police officers in a meaningful way to help provide oversight and help hold the appropriate parties accountable,” ACLU’s Brook said. The city is weighing outfitting officers with video cameras to record interactions, a move Brook said would go a long way in rectifying concerns of misconduct. 

“Who knows whether one particular incident could be prevented by doing everything perfectly,” he said. “But when unspeakable tragedies like this occur, it is a call to make sure you are doing everything possible to prevent them from occurring again.”

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