CMPD, protesters settle lawsuit over police ambush with promises of reform

·4 min read

A lawsuit over a violent Charlotte-Mecklenburg police ambush of protesters last year in uptown has been settled, with attorneys claiming that reforms of department tactics will better protect the public, limit the use of chemical munitions and hold officers more accountable for their actions.

“People should not be brutalized when they are exercising their right to protest,” Kristie Puckett-Williams, statewide manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a statement Friday announcing the settlement.

“This agreement is a step in the right direction, but it’s insufficient to reckon with the violence and trauma protesters endured at the hands of police across the state last year.”

CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings said Friday that the furor surrounding police tactics on the night of June 2, 2020, led the department to review and revise some policies.

“We are a learning agency and always looking for ways to improve as we owe that to the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and all of those we serve because it is the right thing to do,” Jennings said in a statement to the Observer.

The lawsuit settlement follows a series of highly publicized police reforms, including changes to CMPD’s crowd-control procedures and the adoption of “8 Can’t Wait,” a list of deescalation tactics put in place by departments across the country in response to months of protests surrounding the May 2020 police killing in Minnesota of George Floyd.

Jennings, who took over CMPD in the midst of Charlotte’s own Floyd protests, also is leading his department through first-of-its-kind “customer-service” training to help repair the damaged relationship between the public and police.

On the night of the clash, hundreds of marchers in uptown Charlotte protesting Floyd’s murder were trapped by police on Fourth Street, then pelted with chemical munitions from three sides. Dozens either crawled under a gate to escape or fell to the pavement.

“That was some Third World crap they pulled. On their own citizens. In Charlotte,” marcher Edward Walker told the Observer a few days later. “I don’t know if they were tired. I don’t know how many times they have been cussed out.... But what they were doing to us, to a group of protesters who were just walking, they closed us off and they put an onslaught on us.”

Video recordings by police showed that officers intentionally funneled the largely peaceful protest to Fourth Street, then sealed off the block at both Tryon and College streets.

In the footage, one officer is heard saying police were about to “hammer their ass” from two locations, and he told officers with the department’s bicycle unit that the plan called for those marching to be “bottle-necked” on Fourth.

Then, as the protest group passed by chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” the officer said: “Hey, wave goodbye. They’re all about to get gassed.”

While CMPD initially said it had done nothing wrong — a subsequent state investigation found that police had not violated any of its policies — the tactics drew quick condemnation from most of the City Council. Then-Chief Kerr Putney eventually acknowledged that mistakes had been made.

“Last night was one of the those times that none of would want to see happen in our city. But it did,” Mayor Vi Lyles said the day after the incident. “And I hope everyone is aware that that’s not the kind of department we want to have for policing.”

The lawsuit against police by marchers and local and state advocacy groups was filed two weeks after the confrontation.

The settlement comes more than 13 months later. How big a role the complaint played in bringing about the subsequent police reforms is unclear. Police announced changes to some policies at about the same time the lawsuit was filed.

Under the terms of the agreement, CMPD will not use CS tear gas during protests — a change announced by the department in September 2020 — or aim pepper balls at heads or necks. Dispersal orders must be loud, repeated and be broadcast in both English and Spanish.

The settlement also announced an end to “kettling,” a tactic that traps targets between advancing lines of officers. From now on, police must identify at least two escape routes that the public can use to disperse.

The settlement will be in place for four years and will include a mechanism to address CMPD violations, a statement from the plaintiffs’ attorney said.

Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, said the settlement announced Friday better protects people of color.

“We trust and believe in a law that guarantees us the freedom to assemble and the freedom of speech,” she said in a statement.

“Our agreement is another step in a series of ongoing efforts to protect those fundamental rights before using arbitrary and violent police force.”

In his statement, Jennings credited the NAACP for suggested language for some of the new policies, particularly in disperal orders and escape routes.

“Constructive criticisms always makes us better,” he said.

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