From his first day on the job, Kerr Putney, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg chief of police, has been at the center of the fierce national conversation about police violence and race.
In July 2015, when he took the helm after more than two decades on the force, the department had just paid $2.25 million to settle with the family of a 24-year-old black former college football player who was shot and killed by an officer after seeking help after a car accident.
Earlier this year, a cellphone video surfaced showing another officer punching a suspect as fellow members of the force held the man down.
On Tuesday, Keith Lamont Scott was fatally shot at an apartment complex where officers were looking for someone else. Police say Scott was carrying a gun; his family says it was a book. The incident prompted immediate protests.
Through these incidents, Putney has walked a fine line. At a press conference Wednesday morning, Putney said “It’s time to change the narrative, because I can tell you from the facts that the story’s a little bit different as to how it’s been portrayed so far, especially through social media.”
At a community forum this summer, Putney, who is black, said he understands the deep distrust that his department must overcome. “The institution for which I work has a history of racist, bigoted action, not conversation,” he said.
"Even now when I see blue lights, it hits me in the stomach. I’ve had that reaction since I was eight years old," he explained. "I'm gonna tell you a secret, I'm always black — I was born that way, I'm gonna die that way, but I chose to put myself in harm's way with the honorable people who wear these uniforms to protect the people who need us most.”
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Putney for an interview and will update this post if we receive a response.
Several local advocates say they believe Putney is responsive to community feedback. “Chief Putney is really somebody who has been open to dialogue,” said Robert Dawkins, a statewide organizer for SAFE Coalition NC, a grassroots organization promoting police accountability.
Following protests about police shootings across the country, the department has taken its officer-training equipment to community forums. A video simulator is used to show residents what police officers experience in situations where force may be required, the Charlotte Observer reported. The department said positive public response to the simulator has been “overwhelming.”
But Dawkins says there’s a difference between official policies and the day-to-day practices of 1,800 sworn officers.
The 2013 killing of Jonathan Ferrell, the young black man shot after the car accident, prompted allegations that the department wasn’t adequately disciplining officers who were the subject of excessive use-of-force complaints. And despite the $2.25 million settlement, a criminal case against the officer ended in a hung jury and the charges were dropped.
“You can get a civil settlement, but can’t bring officers to justice,” said Dawkins, the local advocate. “I think that’s a big reason you saw the response this time,” he said, referring to the this week’s protests.
Since that time, the police department has joined a pilot program, led by researchers from the University of Chicago, to identify officers who are likely to have an "adverse interaction" with a citizen.
Initially, Putney told the Charlotte Observer, “I wasn’t very warm to the idea.”
But as the researchers, whose work is part of a White House data initiative for safer policing, showed him and others that they would protect officers’ identities, the department came around.
The results have been promising, a department official told the Chicago Tribune this past August. The new system did a better job of predicting which officers would have adverse interventions than the one that was previously in place, said Captain Stella Patterson, who leads the department's professional standards unit.
“Their willingness to engage in that and open themselves up to that kind of study is in and of itself a step in the right direction,” said Suzanna Birdsong, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “But I think they still have a ways to go.”
According to the Guardian, which tracks fatal shootings by police departments, Scott was the seventh person shot by Charlotte-Mecklenberg officers since 2015. In every instance, the police department said the person was armed. In at least one other case besides Scott’s, a witness disputed that there was a threat to the officer’s safety.
Over the past five years, incidents in which officers used force, as well as use-of-force complaints against the department, have declined slightly, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of the department’s annual report figures.