North Carolina

For years, CMPD has pledged improved training. It hasn’t been enough, activists say.

Body cam video shows CMPD officer shooting, killing man at Charlotte Burger King

Video shows Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Wende Kerl fatally shooting Danquirs Franklin on March 25, 2019.
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Video shows Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Wende Kerl fatally shooting Danquirs Franklin on March 25, 2019.

In 2015, after a series of high-profile police killings of African-Americans spurred protests around the U.S., Charlotte city leaders tried to avoid the same fate.

They approved a civil liberties resolution that promised Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers would receive training on de-escalation tactics used to avoid lethal force even when a person is distraught or agitated.

But four years later, activists question whether a CMPD officer used those tactics before fatally shooting a 27-year-old black man.

After CMPD released body-camera video showing Officer Wende Kerl killing Danquirs Franklin, the NAACP and other groups on Monday harshly criticized the shooting.

They said Kerl failed to use de-escalation tactics that CMPD Chief Kerr Putney and city leaders have repeatedly pledged to emphasize after past police shootings. Some said the officer’s actions appeared to intensify the encounter and might have increased the chances for violence.

“I don’t know how anybody with CMPD can defend this,” said Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP. “She went there to shoot.”

Under the law, officers can use deadly force if they perceive that they or others face an “objectively reasonable” imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death.

But CMPD policy says officers should use verbal dialogue and commands throughout encounters to defuse situations without using force. That can include speaking calmly and slowly and keeping a safe distance.

De-escalation has dominated discussion among public officials and activists since Monday’s release of body-worn camera footage from the fatal March 25 confrontation between Kerl and Franklin in the parking lot of a west Charlotte Burger King.

The video’s release prompted scattered protests and public rallies and renewed debate about the killings of African-Americans by CMPD officers.

Footage showed Kerl and a fellow officer responding to 911 calls about an armed man threatening people at the restaurant. Kerl and the other officer shouted commands as she arrived at the parking lot. Franklin, 27, was squatting next to an open car door, just feet away from a man in the passenger seat, the video shows.

Kerl appeared to be less than a car-length away from Franklin, with nothing between her and him.

Kerl and another officer instructed Franklin to put the gun down more than 15 times in the roughly 40 seconds before the shooting.

Then, Franklin reached his right hand toward a pocket and pulled out a gun by the barrel.

He did not appear to be pointing the gun in the moment before he was shot; instead, he appeared to be lowering it toward the ground, the video showed.

Some community activists say they believe the evidence shows that, in the moment before he was shot, Franklin was trying to comply with the police command to drop his gun.

At one point in the video, Franklin can be heard saying, “I heard you the first time.”

In a brief interview Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Vi Lyles told the Observer that CMPD has greatly improved its de-escalation practices in recent years, and that its training exceeds that of most other police departments.

New officers get training on how to communicate with subjects and deal effectively with crises, Lyles noted.

She refused to say what, if anything, the officers who confronted Franklin should have done differently. But she said the city will learn from this shooting.

“At the end of the day, we’ll make changes that we think are necessary,” she said.

At a breakfast meeting Tuesday, Chief Putney refused to say whether he believed the shooting was justified.

But, he said, generally it is much more difficult for officers to use de-escalation methods when a suspect has a gun.

He acknowledged that “this is one of the most troubling videos that I’ve seen.”

“What I’d like to see is, ‘Show me your hands, let me see your palms. OK now this is what I need you to do,’” Putney said. “That would be the ideal.”

Hidden Valley community members gathered for a vigil as part of a Queen City Day of Solidarity on Monday, April 15, 2019.

No consistent policy

Charlotte’s top leaders took steps meant to ease tensions between minorities and CMPD after protests over the fatal police shootings of African-American men in cities such as Baltimore, Ferguson and New York City.

Officials unveiled a civil liberties resolution aimed at reinforcing CMPD policies that prohibit racial and arbitrary profiling.

“We train our officers to de-escalate situations not to escalate situations,” then-City Attorney Bob Hageman said at the June 2015 City Council meeting introducing the resolution, according to meeting minutes.

But about one year later, in September 2016, violent protest erupted in Charlotte after the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

Protesters, people who study law enforcement and others questioned whether an officer who shot Scott resorted to lethal force too quickly. Critics asked why the officers did not do more to de-escalate the encounter with a man who had diminished mental capacity because of a brain injury. They said officers’ actions made a shooting more likely.

Robert Dawkins, of Action NC, a social justice group, helped city officials craft the 2015 resolution on civil liberties. Dawkins said the resolution was meant to help prevent bloodshed in encounters like the one between Kerl and Franklin.

CMPD has successfully used the tactics in some cases, he said. Earlier this month, a SWAT team used de-escalation to apprehend a man who allegedly threatened to shoot his infant daughter, himself and others, CMPD said.

Officers captured the man when he came outside the apartment alone without firing shots, police said. They rescued the girl who was inside the apartment, CMPD said.

But de-escalation tactics are not used consistently and, too often, videos of police shootings show officers intensifying confrontations, Dawkins said.

“I saw no de-escalation,” in the Franklin shooting, Dawkins said. “We see no uniformity from case to case.”

There have been three CMPD shootings since December, including two that were fatal.

At a news conference days ahead the video’s release, Putney said the department is reviewing rules on when officers use lethal force. Putney said officials want to “revamp” policy to put more emphasis on de-escalation.

In a brief interview Tuesday, Putney suggested that suspects need to communicate and provide cooperation to help officers resolve conflicts peacefully.

“If we get cooperation and communication, we can de-escalate,” Putney said.

Family and friends gather in Marshall Park in uptown Charlotte, NC on Monday, April 15, 2019 to remember Danquirs Franklin and speak to the need of coming together as a community. Franklin was shot and killed by CMPD officer Wende Kerl on March 25th.

Divided opinion

Several professors who study use-of-force told the Observer this week that the available facts suggest the shooting was legally justified. That’s because police knew the suspect had gone to a public place brandishing a gun — and they knew he was not complying with their orders.

Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said there’s no guarantee that Franklin would be alive today if officers had reacted differently.

But he laid out an approach that he said might have improved the odds: First, the responding officers could have sought safe cover behind cars. Then they could have ordered Franklin to drop the gun, while also instructing the car passenger who was near the suspect to come to the spot where officers had sought cover.

Stoughton said all of that might have bought the responding officers time — time to assess why Franklin wasn’t obeying their commands to drop the gun and whether it made sense to switch to a softer, more communicative tone.

He noted that Franklin did not appear to react to the officers’ loud commands, raising the possibility that he had a mental health problem.

“At a certain point, if shouting verbal commands isn’t getting you somewhere, you may need to shift your approach,” Stoughton said. “...If this is a mental health issue, you don’t shout commands. You slow that down.”

But not everyone with expertise in use-of-force agrees that this approach would have helped.

“Sure, the officers could have stayed 25 feet away behind their cars. ... ,” Emanuel Kapelsohn, a firearms and police use-of-force instructor from Pennsylvania, said in an email.

“But then they would have been completely unable to protect the Burger King manager in his car with the open door with a gunman 3 feet away from him, and they also would have been unable to prevent the gunman from going back into the Burger King.”