CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Caroline Metzler | The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Kerr Putney, speaking at a Saturday forum designed to foster positive interactions between police and young black males, acknowledged that "my profession has been on the forefront of enforcing laws that have been racist."
But he emphasized that the department is focused on improving its encounters with young black individuals through proper training, improved communication and recruitment aimed at bringing in officers with a history of interacting with diverse groups.
Putney spoke at an event billed as "Conversations vs. Confrontations," hosted by the social justice committees of the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte Mecklenburg and Saint Paul Baptist Church.
Putney, along with many of the other speakers and audience members, referenced the Philando Castile case in their remarks on police interactions with black males. A Minnesota officer was acquitted Friday in the July 2016 fatal shooting of Castile in his vehicle.
Speaking in general about fatal shootings by police, Putney said, "There's still tragic losses going on — families being decimated, communities ripped apart."
Putney noted the problematic nature of the use of lethal force at the hands of police officers, but also emphasized that, legally, all that is required for the use of such force is the perception of a significant lethal threat.
He said his department is committed to changing these violent outcomes and that they have to rise above the legal standard.
"I can give you all the training in the world – I can't train your heart," the chief said.
Putney also fielded questions from audience members, who asked about 2nd Amendment rights as black males, diversity on the police force, racial profiling and the department's handling of the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a CMPD officer last fall. The department determined the officer followed proper procedure, and he was not internally disciplined or criminally charged.
When asked about assigning black officers to majority-black neighborhoods, Putney responded that 75 percent of his force is white, so that would not be attainable.
Putney was also asked questions by young children. One child asked how the department goes about deescalating situations.
Putney said it's important for officers to know how to properly communicate and deescalate, and that if they can't do that, they shouldn't be on his police force. But he also reiterated that it's difficult to deescalate when people feel their lives are in danger.
Another child asked about rogue officers and how Putney handles discipline and training.
Putney said the force is focusing on training officers to communicate well. "We can't afford to have one person who can't communicate and can't connect," he said.
The department reviews its policies after every major incident, Putney said, and these reviews come multiple times a year. He said they have found many gaps in their force policies through these reviews.
"We have a lot of work to do to fight crime," Putney said.
Dwayne Collins, chair of the Black Political Caucus' social justice committee, said young black males between the ages of 16 and 24 show the highest propensity of any demographic in Charlotte for having a negative interaction with police officers.
Collins said this event was an initial step to figuring out how to ensure positive interactions between young black males and law enforcement. Future town halls will continue to focus on proactive activities, conflict resolution and the rogue element in law enforcement.
Colette Forest, chair of the Black Political Caucus, asked at the meeting what the community can do better to ensure these positive interactions.