U.S. News

Past fatal police shootings hold lessons for Charlotte, N.C.

(Reuters) - Within five days, black men were shot dead by police in two major U.S. cities, with the incidents captured on video. But the reaction on the streets in each was vastly different.

A memorial is pictured at the location where the police shooting of Keith Scott took place, in Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S., September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, demonstrators marched peacefully following the killing of Terence Crutcher, who was unarmed at the time of the shooting. In Charlotte, North Carolina, two nights of riots followed the death of Keith Scott, 43, on Tuesday, who refused orders to drop a gun he was holding, according to police. His family says he was holding a book, not a firearm.

The response in each city may be related to how quickly officials released information in the case, policing experts said.

The Charlotte police chief has so far chosen not to release the video publicly despite calls for transparency in the wake of controversial police shootings across the United States.

“The more information that is released, the less opportunity for rumors to spread,” said Eric Schneider, an urban and crime historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

The list of U.S. cities that have struggled with racial tensions following police killings has grown as social media has made footage of incidents readily available.

And although broader social issues like anger over income inequality and mistrust of law enforcement contribute to the tension, experts agree the speed with which authorities react is crucial to containing violence.

Following killings in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, protests were largely peaceful.

In other cities, including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, demonstrations turned dangerously violent.

“(In Ferguson) they just weren’t prepared. It was almost like they didn’t know how to respond. It never crossed their minds that anything like that would happen,” said David Carter, a Michigan State University professor who authored a critical U.S. Justice Department review of that city’s response to the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

Experts in policing tactics say the varied responses offer crucial lessons for cities like Charlotte, including the need to communicate quickly with the public and use force sparingly in response to protests.

Slideshow ( 4 images )


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney said again on Friday he would not release any footage at this time.

Later, a lawyer for Scott’s family said relatives had viewed two videos of the incident, but that they left them with “more questions than answers.”

The family asked officials to allow the public to see the videos “as a matter of the greater good and transparency.”

Robert Taylor, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas and an expert in community policing, urged the chief to release the footage.

“It’s going to come out no matter what,” he said. “If it’s highly inflammatory, the chief has an opportunity to explain what it shows and to say, ‘You have to give me a chance to investigate.’”

Some experts warned that videos do not always have all the answers. The Tulsa video, for instance, does not show whether Crutcher was reaching into his car at the time, as the officer who shot him has said.

But they also stressed that in the absence of video evidence, people might simply adopt whatever narrative fits their perception of the truth.

Max Geron, a major with the Dallas police department who has studied police responses to protests, said officials should generally release as much information as possible.

“I think you’ve seen problems across the country with departments that have been slow to adapt with the demand for increased transparency,” he said.

The exploding use of social media has made it imperative for officials to communicate with the public right after a police shooting, experts said, especially if it erupts into a national controversy.

“You need to get out in front,” Carter said. “Acknowledge the incident.”

In North Charleston, for example, officials immediately charged an officer with murder after a released video showed him shooting an unarmed black man in the back.

By contrast, Chicago authorities refused requests to release footage showing the police killing of Laquan McDonald for more than a year until a judge ordered it. Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder on the same day the video was made public.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was criticized for what was seen as a slow response after the death of Freddie Gray, prompting riots in the city. Gray suffered a fatal neck injury while handcuffed in the back of a police transport van.

Experts also said police must avoid overreacting to protests with an unnecessary show of force.

“It’s almost the first response to call out the guys with the heavy-duty weapons,” the University of Pennsylvania’s Schneider said. “That should, in fact, be the last response. The most egregious example was, of course, in Ferguson, where police showed up in military gear.”

The decision was widely seen as inflaming tensions, as police snipers were stationed atop military vehicles even before demonstrations turned violent.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts announced a midnight curfew on Thursday evening, hoping to stem the violence. The curfew was generally not enforced, with officers watching as peaceful protests dwindled by early Friday.

Many in Charlotte may still remember the 2013 fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man seeking help from police after a car crash. Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times by Officer Randall Kerrick, whose trial resulted in a deadlocked jury in 2015.

In the end, experts agreed the best way to prevent violence is to improve police-community relations.

“It’s really hard to try to alleviate distrust and problems after an incident,” the University of Texas’ Taylor said. “What police departments need are years and years of building trust with their communities.”

Reporting by Joseph Ax and Chris Prentice in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe