CHARLOTTE (by Michael Gordon, The Charlotte Observer) - Last month, after Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe announced his departure, City Manager Ron Carlee interviewed the department's five deputy chiefs about the head job.
According to someone familiar with the search, Carlee asked at least three of them the same question:
Can you support Kerr Putney?
In recent days, the 46-year-old Putney has emerged even more clearly as the front-runner for one of the city's most public and important jobs. His pending selection comes at a time when police departments around the country – and in Charlotte – are under scrutiny for their use of force and treatment of minorities.
Here, the next chief will take over only weeks before the police department's operations and policies go on trial with one of its officers. On July 20, Officer Randall "Wes" Kerrick faces a voluntary manslaughter charge in connection with the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed African-American who was shot 10 times from close range. Putney was head of CMPD's criminal investigations at the time of the officer's arrest; he was involved in the decision to charge Kerrick.
Some members of the police community say that the trial and Carlee's decision are linked, and that the city manager is among the local leaders who want to be prepared if Charlotte experiences some of the same violence that has followed police shootings and court decisions in other U.S. cities.
Carlee declined to answer questions about the search other than to say he wants to name Monroe's replacement "a week or two" before the chief's July 1 departure. One City Council member, Claire Fallon, has endorsed Putney.
In a break from Charlotte's traditional practices, Carlee's vetting process has been fast and private. "Potential candidates who are currently working and are highly successful cannot risk premature exposure," Carlee told the Observer. "The same respect is also due inside candidates while their qualifications are being assessed."
Given the acrimony still left from Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other cities, the city manager's choice will be scrutinized as never before. Putney would be the first Charlotte chief chosen from the CMPD ranks in 25 years.
"This is the singularly most important decision a city can make," says Mel Tucker, a former police chief in North Carolina and now a consultant on police training and tactics.
"Given the times, you need to get this one right. You need somebody with the proper training and the proper understanding that police are the guardians of their communities and not the occupiers of an unfriendly foreign country. You can have the best officers in the world and have them poorly led ... and you can be in big trouble."
Putney, a 23-year CMPD veteran, has spent his entire police career in one department. While he won't answer questions about the selection process, he leaves little doubt that he believes he is fully qualified to assume command.
Some agree. Others do not.
A former senior commander in CMPD, who talked only if his name was not used, describes Putney as a cop who understands partnerships and problem solving. Putney has also taken a far more public role during the department's recent efforts to repair ties with different parts of the city.
"He's a smart guy. He's a solid guy. To start with, you need integrity, and he's got it. I honestly don't know of any skeletons in his closet, none whatsoever."
Community activist Dianne English, who worked closely with Putney in the aftermath of a series of controversial police shootings in the late 1990s, says Putney effectively balances crime fighting and bridge building.
"He's a cop; he's proud of that. But he's always been very connected to the community in some positive and productive ways," says English, executive director of the Community Building Initiative. Putney was the first police officer to serve on the group's board.
"I've never seen him blink. He's true to himself. He honors his commitments. I think he's a whole person and that we'd be very fortunate to have him as chief."
Another former top commander pegs Putney differently. While acknowledging Putney's potential and qualifications, he says the deputy chief so far has not shown the vision, leadership or personal feel for running a department as complex and closely watched as CMPD, or handling the politics of working with a city manager and city council.
Another critic who has worked with Putney says he can be as demanding as Monroe in dealing with subordinates. But the co-worker says Putney lacks his boss's ability to emotionally connect with an audience or articulate CMPD's mission – whether he's talking to a room of cops or a community group.
Both critics say Carlee is making a mistake in apparently limiting his choices to in-house candidates and keeping the vetting private.
"If it comes back to Kerr as the best candidate, great," the former commander says. "But this search needs to be open and nationwide."
During a 45-minute interview Friday with the Observer, Putney acknowledged many of his detractors' claims. He says he knows his strengths and weaknesses as well as those for the department.
He says criticism of his communication skills are warranted. But he believes his private nature has been mistaken for aloofness. Asked if he makes those around him better, he says he is an effective coach "who jumps all over talent" when he sees it.
Then, sounding somewhat like he's already in charge, Putney says both he and his department must keep improving if police are to fully regain the public's trust.
Putney's name surfaced as a candidate for two other chief jobs – in Raleigh, where he was not a finalist, and in Winston-Salem, where Putney says he was offered the job in 2013. He's says he withdrew during salary negotiations. Putney makes $130,000 with CMPD; Winston-Salem's chief was hired at $122,000.
Now he says he's ready, if chosen, to lead the department's 1,849 officers in protecting the country's 17th-largest city.
"This is where I'm passionate about. Charlotte is home," he says, "and all the training and all the things I've gone through in my career have prepared me. I'm ready when and if that opportunity presents itself. I'm as ready as anybody you'll encounter in this line of work."
A voice for others
Putney was born and reared in Roanoke Rapids, in the northeastern part of the state near the Virginia line. He is the last child and only son born to William and Arizona Putney. He has five older sisters.
"It was tough growing up with six mothers," he says.
William Putney was a subcontractor. He gave his son three pillars of advice: Confront your fears. Own your mistakes. Persevere.
When Kerr was 10, his father's body was pulled from the Roanoke River. Police said he drowned. To this day, Kerr Putney believes his father was murdered by one of his workers and that police did not investigate enough to discover the truth.
Because of the handling of his father's death, Putney says he decided to be a lawyer. To this day, he says he has retained an oversized sense of right and wrong.
His career plan changed after he graduated from UNC Charlotte with a criminal justice degree. A close friend – "the first black kid I'd ever met who grew up dreaming of being a cop" – applied to the then Charlotte Police Department. He was turned down with a form letter that said the department had better candidates.
Putney, angry at his friend's disappointment, thought the real reason was race. He applied to prove the department wrong about his friend and, perhaps, black men in general. He became a Charlotte cop in 1992.
During his 20s, Putney says he made some mistakes that he has never repeated. In 1990, he received a criminal summons for assault and battery after a fight on the UNCC campus. All charges were dropped after the combatants shook hands at a magistrate's court.
In 1993 as a young police officer, Putney was suspended for a day for missing a court date. He says he got his days confused.
In the mid-1990s, the newly married Putney says he tried to start a real estate company on the side to bolster his income above his $25,000 police pay. That led to bankruptcy and foreclosure. Again, Putney says he owned his mistake, and records indicate he paid creditors more than $73,000 in less than two years to stabilize his finances.
After becoming a captain in 2003, he took one of the biggest gambles of his career. A former co-worker of Putney's says he brought internal charges against a superior officer – in this case Maj. Lisa Shores, a powerful 20-year veteran. Putney accused her of establishing a hostile work environment. Police Chief Darrel Stephens relieved her of duty and recommended her firing. In 2005, Shores retired. She could not be reached for comment last week, and Stephens declined to discuss the incident.
So did Putney, though he did add this: "If I felt people didn't have a voice, I'd use my voice. I tried to do what my dad told me to do and step up. I never did something like that for myself."
Paying a price
In his seven years as chief, Monroe has in public been, at times, eloquent and affable. Inside CMPD, he could be intimidating and direct. Critics say he was an autocrat and a bully.
Putney, who made an early mark as a trainer at the department's political academy, has kept some of his instructor's ways of communicating. Fans and critics alike say he, like Monroe, can be blunt and demanding. Putney says he sets high standards for himself and everyone else.
At a muscular 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Putney makes a striking physical impression when he enters any room.
He also is an introvert. Co-workers say the physically imposing deputy chief can stay in the background in departmental debates before making his own thinking known. That has proved to be an effective complement to Monroe, who makes many decisions that his predecessors left to the lower ranks.
Putney appears to have had complex relationships with some of his chiefs. Stephens promoted him several times despite Putney's belief that the former chief's philosophy of community policing was "too soft," a former top commander says.
Putney also has had internal clashes with Monroe, though Putney helped his boss get a bid to join the local chapter of Omega Psi Phi, perhaps the country's most prominent fraternity for black men. (Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, now in prison on a corruption charge, was also a member of the same chapter; Putney says the two were acquaintances but not close.)
Monroe has called on Carlee to keep the search for his replacement internal. Asked recently if he has endorsed Putney, Monroe said, "That's not my choice (to make). That's not to say he's not my choice."
During the Observer's interview, Putney was asked to outline his philosophical differences with Monroe when the chief appeared at the door. There was laughter and handshakes before Monroe exited and pointed back at Putney. "That's a good man there, a good man," he said.
"Thanks, Chief," Putney replied. "That means a lot."
Then Putney returned to the differences.
"Crime fighting was key for the chief," Putney said. "But for me, I think it's going to be a bit broader on how we measure that – what beyond the crime we should be focused on."
CMPD has "mastered" the task of curbing crime, he said. Now, training and development of personnel along with establishing stronger ties to the community need the same emphasis.
As for his own accomplishments, Putney takes pride in helping revamp the department's training regimen to accommodate different learning styles and to help instructors assess who has the proper combination of "head and heart" to be a cop. He has tried to improve minority recruiting. All remain works in progress, including himself, though he adds, "I'm better at 46 than I was at 23."
Putney believes that some of the criticism of his leadership style is on the mark. He says he is working to become a better communicator. A co-worker says Putney often gives generic directives, responding to subordinates' follow-up questions with, "Figure it out yourself."
"He uses up his ability to deal with people so fast," the co-worker says. "It's not his fault. He's an introvert. But basically people are going to do what he says because they don't want to be yelled at."
Putney has also had public missteps. In September, during a news conference after the arrest of a CMPD officer for injuring a handcuffed man, he powerfully conveyed the department's impatience with police breaking the law. But with the TV cameras running, he also said he didn't want "criminals hiding behind badges."
The reaction within the department was immediate, and the comment haunts Putney to this day. "It made a lot of folks look at him differently," a former CMPD commander says, adding that Monroe would never have made that kind of mistake.
Putney says his heart was in the right place, but his semantics were flawed.
"I should have said, 'I don't want people wearing this uniform committing crimes,'" he says. "It's a small difference to the outside world but a huge one internally, and I paid a price."
Monroe and Putney do share a trait: If they believe they are right, they don't easily change their minds. In the fight over who should police Charlotte Douglas International Airport, this stubbornness led to an ugly and political fight over turf.
On one side was longtime Airport Director Jerry Orr; on the other, Putney and Monroe. Communication soon broke down. Tensions rose.
"It was like 'The Godfather meets Survivor,'" says one officer involved in the negotiations. Critics say the situation improved after another deputy chief was called in to help.
Asked about the airport last week, Putney says the situation has significantly improved now that CMPD is in charge. And he does not back down from what he believes to be the larger point: "We are the experts on public safety."
Orr, now retired, acknowledges butting heads repeatedly with Putney.
"I would hate to judge him based on that," he says. "It was contentious. I was being force-fed, and that's never a pleasant experience."
On a side note, Orr said he thinks Putney will be the city's next police chief.
"I think he's a shoo-in," said Orr. "I'd bet the farm on it."
Broader conversation about race
In describing the challenge for Charlotte's next police chief, a former CMPD commander says law enforcement is a small part of the job.
Being a chief requires community building, communicating well and developing partnerships. "This is the part that Kerr needs to work on," he says. He acknowledges that Putney is taking a larger role in community meetings and saying more of the right things. "But he has to prove that he believes the stuff he says."
In recent weeks, Putney has been touring schools for what he described as frank discussions about race and policing with young African-American males, where tensions run highest.
He has also begun mentoring a black teenager who will become a freshman at Johnson C. Smith University in the fall.
These developing relationships coincide with the breakup of his 20-year marriage. On May 14, Putney sued his wife, Jonnie, for divorce. According to the document, the Putneys have two teenage sons and have been living apart for the past year. Putney declined to discuss the breakup.
Given the atmosphere, city leaders hope the next chief can build on Monroe's success with minority communities, particularly as the Kerrick trial approaches.
Putney says the department, whether he is running it or not, must make a greater effort to form productive relationships with all neighborhoods. But he believes the city's necessary discussion on race should be deeper than "the color of the police chief's skin."
He acknowledges the potential for unrest if Kerrick is acquitted.
The Democratic National Convention in 2012 gave police invaluable training in dealing with demonstrations and crowds, he says. "But back then we were not the target. This time, our whole profession is going to be on trial – the way we do business, training, recruiting, the whole lot."
Stephens, Putney's former boss, says the city would be making a mistake if it chooses its next chief "on the basis of one case," even one as potentially explosive as Kerrick's.
"It's an important case. It's important to the officers. But you're looking for somebody who can lead ... somebody who's willing to do some very, very hard work," Stephens says.
Putney says hard work has never scared him. If he is intimidated by the notion of becoming chief on the eve of the trial, he does not show it. He believes he has faced challenges before, and, using his father's word, persevered.
Asked again if he is ready to lead, Putney rambles a bit about training and experiences before his reply turns clipped.
"The short answer: Absolutely."