Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since WBTV uncovered body-worn camera footage that showed a CMPD officer putting a gun to an unarmed man’s head and threatening to kill him.
Officer Jon Dunham pulled his service weapon on James Yarborough less than 20 seconds after Yarborough was tackled to the ground at the end of a foot chase.
Yarborough, who has been convicted on multiple federal felony firearms charges, ran from police when a car in which he was riding was pulled over.
Putney said the officer’s action were indefensible.
“I’m not going to defend some of the language because we do have policies that restrict what can be said and in what manner,” Putney told reporters Thursday. “Nor am I going to defend all of the tactics used, especially on behalf of Officer Dunham.”
Putney’s rebuke of the language and tactics used to take Yarborough into custody is an abrupt change from the full-fledged defense of Dunham’s behavior offered by CMPD Major Stella Patterson in an interview with WBTV that aired Monday.
In her interview, Patterson—who heads the department’s Internal Affairs Division—said she and the department stand behind Dunham’s behavior.
“When you look completely at the totality of the circumstances, you have to ask yourself ‘was that reasonable in that situation?’ and, based on everything, it was reasonable,” Patterson said.
**WARNING: The video from the officer's body cameras contain foul language and may be disturbing to some viewers**
“I can tell you, nobody is defending putting a gun to somebody’s head in that particular situation,” Putney said.
Even as Putney contradicted what Patterson said in her earlier interview, Putney said the department’s position has remained the same.
“What I saw from Major Patterson is the use-of-force was legally justified. She was very clear in that,” Putney said in response to a question from WBTV about why he and Patterson have taken different positions on Dunham’s behavior.
CMPD failed to follow CRB policy
Putney also answered questions from WBTV about why Yarborough had never been provided a letter from CMPD outlining the findings of its Internal Affairs investigation.
City policy requires the department to provide such a document in the event a citizen complains about the way they were treated by police. The department had previously acknowledged Yarborough complained about the incident, but Yarborough had not received written notification of the department’s findings.
Written notification is required for a citizen with a complaint about treatment by police to then file a claim with the Citizens Review Board. Since Yarborough never received the required notification, he was never able to file an appeal.
On Thursday, Putney acknowledged that Yarborough had not received written notification of the department’s findings as required by city policy, but said the department would be sending a letter in the near future.
Putney said the investigation had recently been adjudicated within the department but he could not provide specifics on when the investigation was actually closed.
A department spokesman did not follow up with that information Thursday afternoon.
CMPD to seek release of video
A state law that took effect in October 2016 prohibits CMPD from releasing the video documenting the encounter between Yarborough and the CMPD officers.
The law requires approval from a judge before any police video can be released for any reason. The law, which was passed by the Republican-led legislature in 2016 and signed by then-Governor Pat McCrory who then claimed the law would increase transparency, makes police videos secret.
On Thursday, CMPD announced it had filed a petition with the Mecklenburg County Superior Court to be able to release the video to the public.
It is not clear how long the process to release the video will take, despite the fact that the video has been public since Monday when WBTV first published a copy of the video, which was obtained from a source.
The North Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday that would tweak the current law making police video secret, largely changing minor rules that would make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share videos among themselves and with city/county managers and government bodies.
Nothing in the changes approved by the House on Thursday would make it easier for a member of the public to access police video.
Local leaders respond
Three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Charlotte have issued statements in response to the video first uncovered by WBTV. Each statement criticized the officer’s behavior.
Mayor Jennifer Roberts, in her statement, reiterated the importance of police body cameras to capture what happens in interactions between police and citizens.
The candidates said the following:
Senator Joel Ford:
“It’s important to look at the whole incident—what lead to this restraint, how was the citizen behaving, and how the contact with officers began. From what we know now, restraining Mr. Yarborough was justified; the persistent use of force and threat against his life was not, however,” said Senator Ford.
We have to be careful not to normalize unacceptable behaviors by officers, even when someone in not complying with law enforcement. Pressing the barrel of a gun against someone’s head and threatening their life is unprofessional, harms the relationship between law enforcement, and furthers the narrative that Black lives don’t matter. The ability to restrain your emotions and act in accordance with what the community expects from law enforcement is key to public service.
Before I released my crime plan, I sought input from members of law enforcement and the community. In that plan, I called for an increase in the number of officers, as well as improving the quality and frequency of de-escalation training. Each time this happens in our city, it will become more and more difficult to advocate for law enforcement’s needs if Charlotteans only see additional officers as a threat to their own safety.”
Senator Ford plans to attend the Conversations versus Confrontations event hosted by the Black Political Caucus in June of 2017 and invites members of the press to do likewise.
Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles:
“Yesterday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) released a video of four officers attempting to arrest a suspect who was unarmed. CMPD conducted an internal investigation and determined the officer was legally justified to pull his weapon. However, it is very troubling to see again these images and video continue to play out in our community.
The investigation did determine that the officer did not comply with CMPD communication protocol and tactical training. I believe the officer did not act ethically or morally when he made threats to take another human being's life. In order for our community to have continued trust with law enforcement, there must be accountability. Several incidents over the last few years have cast doubt and fear into the lives of our citizens when approached by law enforcement.
As a city, we all must work toward a culture of trust, respect, and cooperation between CMPD and our citizens. I will continue to work in creating community advisory groups within each law enforcement response area to increase accountability and awareness with those who protect our streets. I look forward to continuing my work with Police Chief Putney and CMPD for increased oversight of policies and procedures.”
Mayor Jennifer Roberts:
“No one can justify pressing a gun to the head of one of our unarmed citizens and threatening to kill them. I agree with Chief Putney's statement today that the officer's actions were indefensible. This incident was both preventable and unacceptable.
Incidents like these are exactly why we need body camera footage. People should be able to see for themselves important and sometimes controversial events, and that requires transparency. The video offers a critical perspective on the difficult situations our officers face every day and is an example of why I support the current independent review of CMPD policies and procedures, and why I continue to support our investment in Body Worn Cameras. Transparency and trust go hand in hand.”