Charlotte has always tried to be a progressive city, but last summer of 2016 all that came crashing down as the world watched their city streets erupt in violence. Protesters were reacting to a final tipping point event: a police officer fatally shooting Keith Lamont Scott. Protests, riots, and street clashes between police and angry citizens are becoming a familiar scene. We’ve seen it happen in Milwaukee and Baltimore, and now Charlotte.
Charlotte isn’t Milwaukee or Baltimore, though. It’s #14 on the Forbes List of Best Places for Business and Careers. It’s also a major hub of finance, second only to New York City. The city has a lot going on, so the problems they’re facing right now can’t be dismissed as the results of a bad city erupting in the deep heat of summer, when everyone’s tempers are short, and when more people are on the streets. Charlotte’s problems run deeper than that.
The city has a lot going for it, but its progressive nature has been held back by larger forces that seem to keep its culture deeply rooted in the Old South ways. Charlotte was a champion of busing during the era of desegregation. They made busing work when other cities couldn’t… until, that is, a scared, small-minded group of parents sued to end busing. The result? Students (both white and black) underperformed and committed more crimes. More recently, the city passed legislation allowing transgender people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity… until North Carolina made it illegal to allow such.
Neither setback bodes well for long-term community relations in Charlotte. In fact, they point to a culture of fear and division among some of the city’s more powerful forces. Of course that doesn’t explain the death of Keith Lamont Scott and the riotous aftermath. But it does set the scene for a city that’s tried hard to rise above hatred, despite the challenging setbacks along the way.
In any city, police are on the front lines every day, placed in the awkward and impossible situation of handling the results of deep-seated problems in our country: racism, long-term urban poverty, public health crises, and economic disparity. To their credit, police officers sign up to protect and serve, but often end up tasked with solving age-old problems that nobody knows how to fix.
But that doesn’t mean they should all turn into institutionalized vigilantes, acting for the “silent majority” as some BPD officers apparently did in Baltimore. The big issues in the Baltimore shooting stemmed from the police corruption, whose members used unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests. Could Charlotte’s police force be broken, too?
The entire police officer career journey — from hiring to training to discipline — must be examined. According to Matt Barge of the Police Assesment Resource Center,“Officers have a tremendous amount of discretion, and if the department isn’t holding them accountable, there is no check on that discretion.”
Charlotte, which has often prided itself for being a symbol of the “New South,” may have the same systemic problems in its police force as Baltimore. A year ago, the Charlotte Observer reported that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police killed 15 people in the past decade. During that same period of time, only two officers have ever been fired or suspended. One was fired and another was suspended for a mere two days.
That could mean either 1) all but two of those killings were justified, or 2) something is wrong with the department’s incident reporting. In 2013, an huge settlement went to the family of a CMPD shooting victim, suggesting the latter explanation. One officer in the CMPD has fatally shot people three times in five years and he’s not the only “repeat offender” in the department.
The trouble is, of course, the problems facing Charlotte go well beyond any single city. With a closer look at police hiring, training, and disciplinary techniques and strategy across the nation, we might be able to fix this.
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