CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Records obtained by WBTV show Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones largely deferred to CMPD Chief Kerr Putney over a 2017 decision over whether to side with Putney or the Citizens Review Board in a use of force case.
Jones was left as the final arbiter of whether police acted appropriately in using force against an unarmed man who had run from police and was being arrested.
The incident came to light after the man, James Yarborough, contacted WBTV and shared body camera video of his violent arrest.
In the video, you see one CMPD officer put his service pistol to Yarborough’s head and threaten to kill him. After that, officers spent several minutes using different methods to strike Yarborough--including an elbow blow to the back of his head--until another officer arrived on scene and suggested the four officers pinning Yarborough down get off of him and let him put his hands behind his back.
Prior to contacting WBTV, Yarborough had attempted to lodge a complaint about the incident in-person at CMPD headquarters. That complaint was not addressed by the department until after the station’s story.
Ultimately, Putney ruled that the officer who pressed his gun to Yarborough’s head and threatened to kill him had violated a policy that prohibits officers from engaging in unbecoming conduct but also ruled that officer did not use excessive force.
Yarborough and his attorney appealed Putney’s decision to the city’s Citizens Review Board, which is a group of civilian residents that reviews complaints against police officers, largely surrounding use of force.
The CRB voted to disagree with Putney’s decision that there was not a policy violation of excessive force. It was the first time in the more than two decades that the board had existed that it took such a vote.
In its confidential memo outlining its findings, the CRB elaborated on various ways in which it believed the officer had violated the use of force policy.
DOCUMENT: CRB Decision and Recommendation
Among other things, the CRB made the following finding:
“Instead of acting for his own protection and that of other officers, the Board finds that Officer Dunham was too quickly frustrated with not being able to handcuff Mr. Yarborough after various officers had been involved in a lengthy pursuit. The Board finds that Officer Dunham pulled his weapon and made his threats out of frustration and anger even though Mr. Yarborough did not have a weapon and was not threatening the officers with deadly bodily harm. Under these circumstances, the Board does not believe that such pointing of a weapon and threatening of a citizen – even one who only a little while earlier had fled from officers and was not then fully cooperating with police commands about putting his hands behind his back – is appropriate or justified. The Board finds Officer Dunham’s conduct here simply in pointing his gun at an unarmed citizen and threatening to kill him to be an excessive use of force.”
The CRB findings also conclude that the officer was not honest in his write-up of the incident, and made multiple statements to justify his use of force that were not accurate, which is also a policy violation.
In the wake of the CRB ruling, city policy leaves the ultimate decision over whether to uphold the chief’s decision or take the CRB recommendation to overturn it to the city manager.
Jones decided to side with Putney, over the findings of the CRB.
Records filed in a federal civil rights case brought by Yarborough against the City of Charlotte over his arrest show Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones relied on advice and consultation from Putney in deciding whether to agree with his decision.
“Did you go through sort of paragraph-by-paragraph and assess what happened, or did you just sort of take the chief’s position on the reasons that he thought the force was justified and kind of balance it against the general position of the board and side with the – agree with the chief’s position being reasonable?” a lawyer for Yarborough asked Jones in a deposition in the federal civil rights case.
DOCUMENT: Jones Deposition
“So I took the report from the board, used the chief’s – our discussions about it and understanding of – again, he being my subject matter expert, much like any other department head because – well, like any other department head,” Jones responded. “Using his understanding of the policies and procedures and the law, I thought that it was reasonable, his conclusion, given all of the elements of this case.”
“What is the point of the citizens review board if the chief’s judgement isn’t going to be questioned?” the lawyer later asked in the deposition.
“The chief’s judgement was questioned by me. He didn’t roll in one day with a memo and then I wrote a memo the next day,” Jones said.
In an interview for this story, Putney said he and Jones worked to implement many of the policy recommendations included in the CRB opinion from the Yarborough case but he did not value the role the CRB plays in reaching a conclusion about whether Putney made the correct decision concerning specific policy violations by officers.
“The ‘advisory’ label is where it should stand,” Putney said of the CRB. “And I think the problem with the way it’s structured is their only alternative to say they disagree is to say that we made a bad decision, we erred in our decision.”
But Putney said he did not believe the CRB was qualified to review specific law enforcement actions and make policy determinations because they board is made up of non-law enforcement officers.
“A lot of times you see decisions made, including those made by the CRB, that would violate the application of law and I’ll never do that as a police chief and I don’t think any chief should,” Putney said.
“I do see value in an outside entity giving us recommendations, even though they may be basically in laymen’s terms relative to a depth of knowledge around applying the law. It does bring value,” Putney said. “However, if you’re going to supersede the legal standard and apply your own personal beliefs when the legal standard trumps all, I’m not going to heed that advice because I’m not going to break the law.”
Jones declined a request to be interviewed for this story but did issue a statement that focused on the work he and Putney had done to implement the CRB’s recommendations.
“In the four years since this incident, CMPD has implemented series of policy changes that have increased accountability and the level of training that our officers receive. We acted on the recommendations from the Citizens Review Board in this case and reported back to the CRB with our new policies. We also engaged residents and law enforcement experts to ensure that we continue to provide our residents with the best police force, highly engaged neighborhoods, and a safe community,” the statement said in part.
Jones’ statement did not, however, address the question about why he consulted with Putney—and, seemingly, only Putney—to determine whether to uphold his decision regarding the use of force or to take CRB’s recommendation to overturn his decision.
The CRB voted for the second time in its history to disagree with the chief’s decision regarding a potential policy violation last week. That case involved the fatal shooting of Danquirs Franklin, who was shot in the parking lot of a Burger King last spring.
The CRB has not yet issued its findings and it is not clear whether Jones will use the same process to decide whether to uphold Putney’s judgement that there was no policy violation in the fatal shooting or take the recommendation of the CRB and overturn Putney’s decision.
For his part, Putney said the relationship between him and the CRB has improved since the Yarborough decision.
“We have invested a lot of time. I think we’ve made some headway there and some mutual respect for what each side has to do and that’s been a long time coming,” he said.