Charlotte stops funding of police chemical agents amid protests, heavy criticism

Updated: Jun. 8, 2020 at 9:37 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Police officials in Charlotte can no longer buy chemical agents, like those used last week during protests in uptown. The move came Monday night after a City Council vote, which removed money from the city’s budget for such equipment.

The 9-2 vote, coinciding with days of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, brings some change to how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers can control and disperse crowds. And the decision tasks a Charlotte City Council committee with the responsibility of scrutinizing and adjusting how CMPD spends money and creates policy.

“For the allies, please know that we need you to keep the same energy tomorrow morning that you have displayed over the past few weeks,” said City Council member Braxton Winston, who introduced the funding maneuver to address heavy criticism aimed at CMPD officers who used chemical agents against largely peaceful protesters on June 2.

Winston has been active with the protests and he was arrested on Beatties Ford Road on May 29, the first night of protests in Charlotte, for failure to disperse. Winston acknowledged this “step alone is not good enough,” referencing systemic issues within police departments and racism in the United States.

Earlier Monday, the Charlotte for Black Futures coalition also urged the City Council to reallocate 5% of CMPD’s budget — on top of proposed increases — toward affordable housing, transportation and community health programs, among other initiatives. About 730 individuals and 28 local groups signed the list of demands, which also called for a task force on reparations for black residents in Charlotte.

Mayor Vi Lyles has condemned the June 2 incident, saying it was “one of those times that none of us can be proud of.” CMPD Chief Kerr Putney called footage of the incident, captured by alternative newspaper Queen City Nerve, “disturbing.”

City Budget Director Ryan Bergman said CMPD spent $103,000 on chemical agents this year.

That money could be better used to support community-based programs, says Tin Nguyen, an organizer with SEAC Village and local attorney. Nguyen has been involved in protests throughout Charlotte, on Beatties Ford Road, in uptown and in Myers Park in recent days.

“With all the money that’s left over, it can go to housing, it can go to health programs, it can go to education,” Nguyen said Monday afternoon, before the City Council vote. “By taking away (CMPD’s) instruments of brutality used on the protesters, it will be a slap on the wrist. But it is something that will show teeth, and it’s one step toward defunding the entire police department.”

Within the same vote, City Council also approved a $2.55-billion budget for fiscal year 2021. Council members Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokari opposed Winston’s budget adjustment, describing it has a rash action that undermined the budget process and police morale.

Driggs said Wintston’s motion struck him as a “gratuitous dig at police.”

“I think this is a kind of hasty and rather small measure that has been conceived in the context of the current situation,” Driggs said. “I believe the changes that are needed are complex and large in scale.”

‘TIME TO ACT’

Other council members praised the change, though. The State Bureau of Investigation is now reviewing last week’s protest incident, and in uptown last Tuesday, where police officers deployed chemical agents agent peaceful protesters. Putney has said he’ll ask the court for permission to release police footage.

“It’s time to act. This is to build relationships — to show that there are policies, that there is accountability,” City Council member Renee Johnson said Monday night. “I think that this will enhance trust in the community.

City Council member Dimple Ajmera said CMPD must be intentional about its purchases. Yet she emphasized Monday’s vote was not meant to penalize police officers.

“Unless and until our response is improved, we will not be able to build trust with our residents,” Ajmera said. “And currently I see, our trust — we have a long way to go.”

Yet the local Fraternal Order of Police quickly rebuked the City Council’s vote as “dangerous” on social media, asking what options are now available for police officers as they protect businesses and homes during protests.

“Without their use, this city would be on fire, and injuries would be much greater,” the FOP said of chemical agents. “As rocks and explosives are hurled at them, what measures do the police in Charlotte now have to defend themselves and the preservation of life and property?”

Hours earlier, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office — a separate law enforcement agency — had announced its deputies will no longer be allowed to use tear gas during protests or other law enforcement encounters, citing “tensions mounting between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

‘MORE EQUITABLE AND JUST CITY’

Charlotte City Council members also unanimously condemned the killing of Floyd in a separate resolution — and called on all Charlotte residents to help create a “more equitable and just city, state, country and world.”

In their resolution, council members tasked City Manager Marcus Jones to align CMPD policies with the national “8 Can’t Wait” initiative — including banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation strategies and mandating a use-of-force continuum.

Three of those policies are already in effect for CMPD, according to a database from “8 Can’t Wait.” And last week, Putney announced changes to the department’s “duty to intervene policy,” which is another tenet of the national campaign to end police violence.

“We’ve heard from people who say we want more,” said City Council member Larken Egleston, who introduced the resolution. “We agree. This is not meant to be the end. It’s only meant to be the beginning.”

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte NAACP, said City Council’s actions did not adequately address inherent racism within police departments. Banning chemical agents, Mack said, is a “Band-Aid” that does not hold city leaders accountable, including the police chief and city manager.

“Black people are sick of the Band-Aid — someone is going to get killed tomorrow,” Mack said in an interview Monday afternoon. “The buck stops now. There is no transparency.”

BREAKING DOWN CHARLOTTE’S BUDGET

Charlotte’s budget is a 3% decrease from fiscal year 2020 that hints at the financial difficulties wrought by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The budget doesn’t dip into Charlotte’s “rainy day” funds — and no core city services will be cut, Jones has said. To overcome a nearly $22-million budget shortfall, certain funding sources were rerouted and city departments eliminated 26 vacant positions.

The property tax rate will stay at about 35 cents per $100 assessed property value, but other fees will rise for Charlotte residents.

The water and sewer fee will increase by 1.9%, or about $1.24 per month, for homeowners. And the solid waste fee will increase by $0.80 per month, or $9.60 annually.

Under the new budget, Charlotte will move forward with $50 million in affordable housing bonds and $44.5 million for neighborhood improvement bonds, intended to spur infrastructure and growth.

Charlotte is also investing $24.5 million in “opportunity corridors” — areas such as Beatties Ford/Rozzelles Ferry roads and Central Avenue/Albemarle Road — that city leaders hope to rejuvenate through economic development.

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