Forty years ago this Sunday, long before Kerr Putney exposed a hole in the state’s retirement laws, long before he was a police chief, or even a first-year officer, he was a 10-year-old boy trying to understand how his father wound up dead and floating down the Roanoke River.
He listened as the Halifax County Sheriff’s department told his five older sisters and mother that the cause was an accidental drowning.
No way, the boy thought.
That was October 20, 1979, and to this day, Kerr Putney believes they mishandled the case. He believes his father was murdered.
“They did a shoddy job,” Putney told me once. “I thought they didn’t care about the value of a black life.”
Putney, 50, is now a police chief on the brink of retirement — or so he’d like to be, at least. He recently announced he would leave after this year, then come back two months later on an interim basis to work through next summer’s Republican National Convention. But several media outlets have reported that he may be violating a long-standing state law that prohibits employees from retiring with an expressed commitment to return to the job.
The frayed edges of his exit have delayed any honest assessment of his nearly 30-year career, and any conversations that the city ought to be having about the future.
When he took the job in 2015, Putney, who is black, was seen as one of the rare chiefs who could both address the national frustration over police shootings of black people and provide support for his nearly 2,000 officers. He projected a vibe that he could be a chief for activists and officers alike.
Now, Putney’s last full year as chief will likely be Charlotte’s deadliest since 1993, with 85 murders and counting. And on Wednesday, CMPD released its quarterly crime report which showed crime up over last year in nearly every category. On top of that, a handful of officer-involved shootings hasn’t helped ease the fear of police among black residents.
“We’re different in Charlotte, y’all,” Putney said in a press conference in the summer of 2016, about a year after he took the job. “And we’re a good kind of different.”
That press conference was, without question, one of Putney’s most memorable moments in charge. It came during the awful summer when 50 people were murdered at a nightclub in Orlando, and Philando Castile was shot by an officer in Minnesota, and Alton Sterling was killed by officers in Baton Rouge, and five uniformed officers were killed by a sniper at a rally in Dallas.
The day after the Dallas shooting, Putney delivered a speech that would go viral. Behind him were elected leaders from across the political spectrum, from Democratic city council member LaWana Mayfield to then-state representative and Republican Bill Brawley, two people whose views couldn’t be further apart. Everybody nodded through Putney’s address.
“Even now when I see blue lights, it hits me in the stomach. I’ve had that reaction since I was 8 years old,” Putney said, wearing his white dress uniform with four stars on the collar. “But what you don’t know is, I’m sometimes more fearful when I put this uniform on. Because I’m gonna tell you a secret, I’m always black. I was born that way. I’m gonna die that way.”
He went on.
“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.”
Two months later, though, came September 20, 2016, when a CMPD officer shot and killed a black man named Keith Scott in an apartment complex in north Charlotte. People took to the streets with the familiar chants, “No Justice, No Peace.” Putney’s officers fired teargas. They wore tactical gear. The next night, one protestor shot another protestor in front of the Omni Hotel.
After that shot echoed around the skyscrapers, I turned the corner onto College Street and heard an officer say, “Clear the area. We cannot guarantee your safety.”
In the days that followed, pressure mounted on Putney to release body camera footage. He held off and held off. Then mayor Jennifer Roberts wrote an op-ed questioning the “lack of transparency” about the tapes. By the weekend, when Putney released some of the footage, people were already marching in Charlotte’s streets with signs calling for his resignation.
Of all thoughts I had while following the protests that week, one that consistently stood out was: This wasn’t supposed to happen under Kerr Putney.
He’s faced plenty of other criticism since, including for the police shooting of another young black man, Danquirs Franklin, outside a Burger King on Beatties Ford Road this past March.
Meanwhile, he’s spent this past year going to community meetings to talk about the rising murder rate. He’s encountered mothers and family members who rail against him as a representation of a police force that can’t stop the killing.
This is, honestly, just the life of a police chief now. Much like a schools superintendent or a district attorney, he’s the last available parking spot for a community’s frustration. In my interviews and conversations with elected officials and other community members during the past couple of weeks, few were overly critical of Putney’s body of work. In fact, most praised him.
He’s become a true Charlotte story, in that sense. We love new things and new leaders, until we don’t. We’ve had six mayors and five school superintendents and four city managers in the 2010s.
Police chief, believe it or not, has been one of most stable leadership positions: Rodney Monroe was chief from 2008 to 2015 before Putney took over.
But Putney’s departure the year before what’s sure to be a tense election year in North Carolina raises several questions, including: If Kerr Putney, whose career was founded in a desire to never let kids experience the same frustration with cops he did, couldn’t make Charlotte happy, who will?
If you look back at all, you’ll see that the life of this city is all stutter-steps and cycles, progress and repeat mistakes.
One hundred years ago, in 1919, Charlotte police officers were asked to stand guard at the streetcar trolley barn in Dilworth — near what’s now a restaurant named Flower Child in South End, by the way — to manage a dispute between striking streetcar workers and replacement drivers.
The police chief at the time, Walter B. Orr, found himself in the middle of a brawl that was started and ended by his officers, when they killed four people and injured at least 14 more.
“Get back, every damn one of you!” Orr shouted to the protestors, Chuck McShane wrote in Charlotte magazine in 2014.
Thirty-one officers were charged in the deaths. Their trial lasted two weeks before a judge dismissed the case. And the newspapers didn’t mention it again.
Skip forward 70-some years to October 5, 1993, when CMPD officers Andy Nobles and John Burnette chased a car-theft suspect into the woods near the old Boulevard Homes housing project on West Boulevard. Five minutes later, a man named Alden Harden somehow gained control of Burnette’s gun and shot both officers in the head.
Harden was sentenced to death, and he’s still in Central Prison in Raleigh, one of five Mecklenburg County residents on the state’s 142-person death row roster. (Nobody in North Carolina has been executed since 2006.)
The officers’ murders were part of Charlotte’s deadliest year on record, with 129 homicides. The worst number since then was 89 in 1995. With four more murders, we’ll surpass that this year.
For all the initiatives and protests, community conversations and breakfasts, and for all the ways Charlotte is growing and different, much of it is the same as the 1990s. Back then, the trouble was crack. Today, it’s a concoction of guns and poverty.
CMPD officers have encountered 7,900 armed people this year, and successfully de-escalated each encounter, according to the quarterly stats update on Wednesday. The report notes that they’ve had just three officer-involved shootings. And they’ve obtained 1,538 illegal guns.
True as it is in rural areas, it’s the same in the city: In the hands of people who don’t have a lot, a gun can become a most valuable possession, a source of pride. But in Charlotte, the guns often wind up in the hands of teenagers who don’t understand the repercussions of firing one at another human.
Don’t believe me? Take a seat in first-appearance court on a Friday afternoon and witness the juveniles in green suits walk in with handcuffs around their wrists. On a recent afternoon I did that, and the line seemed endless. Several had been charged with firing guns at people the night before. At least one teenage boy was homeless.
There have been higher-profile cases, too: A mother named Kendal Crank died while sitting in her car at an intersection on North Tryon Street this year. Three young men under the age of 24 have been arrested.
The shooting took place less than a week after Franklin’s death at Burger King. Putney spoke loudly and clearly after Crank’s murder.
“I’m frustrated by it because the only time people really want to get upset is when police are involved,” Putney told WSOC. “What I’m saying is, that’s what we can’t tolerate. We can’t have somebody innocent caught in the crossfire, potentially, and why are we resorting to gun violence so quickly? It’s young people continuing to make bad decisions. We got to break that cycle.”
Now, compare that to Putney from 23 years ago, in May 1996.
He was a uniformed officer then and part of a massive drug raid in the Belmont neighborhood in which 120 officers broke down dozens of front doors at daybreak, pulling suspects from their beds and fingerprinting them in front of their neighbors.
“The problem is, you don’t have enough residents involved in the community,” Putney told an Observer reporter that day in 1996. “We’ve been running into a brick wall trying to get people motivated.”
It’s trite to say that nothing changes. In some ways it does; in others it doesn’t.
The criticism that follows Putney and his fellow officers now echoes that of three decades ago. In 2019, it comes from all over the place, locally and nationally, Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, from people who say his department still hasn’t done enough to de-escalate in situations like the one at Burger King.
In 1996, it came from a woman named Renee Smith, who stood on her porch at 16th and Pegram streets and answered reporters’ questions. She said she supported the Belmont raid, in theory, but she felt like her neighborhood was targeted.
“They’ve got a job to do,” Smith told the newspaper. “But I think they should go into Myers Park and hit those houses.”
In early August, on a suffocating evening when a thunderstorm rang rain on a community center in south Charlotte, Putney was on stage again as part of another community conversation.
In the past four years, he’s done hundreds of them. He’s changed a little, outwardly. Gone is the white police shirt with the four stars on the collar – those were his predecessor Rodney Monroe’s idea anyway. Now he wears crisp, gray, tailored suits.
In any other setting he’d simply have been the sharpest-dressed person in the room, a middle-aged man in top physical condition and a deep voice with a slight eastern North Carolina accent. He was still all of those things, but he’s also still the police chief of the fastest-growing city in the southeast.
Joining him on the panel were District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, district court judges Elizabeth Trosch and Roy Wiggins, and public defender Mike Kabakoff. At times each took defensive stances about their department’s role in the rise in violent crime in Mecklenburg County this year. Trosch talked bail reform; Merriweather shared budget constraints and the fact that the county only has three courtrooms to process what was then 220 homicide cases; and Putney hammered on something he’s been hammering all year: repeat offenders.
Of course, they’re all intertwined. And of course, there are factors outside of their jurisdiction that wind up in front of them – from the lack of affordable housing to wage gaps.
Putney was short and stern with his answers, more than I remember him being four years ago. At one point, when Merriweather said that some district court judges don’t allow victims to speak at the accused person’s early court appearances, Puntey’s voice boomed throughout the room.
“Wow!” he said. “That’s interesting.”
The job of police chief will wear out any person’s patience, is what I’m saying.
Which makes the most important question today not one about Putney’s contract and whether he shouldn’t have expressly said he’d return after retirement, but who will replace him, and how much support will that person receive.
Most of the officers who would typically be in line for the job joined the force around the same time Putney did, and many plan to retire soon, too. In fact, the department will see a massive snowfall of retirements at all levels in the next few years.
People around the department are quietly wagering that the city will likely hire a woman to replace Putney. Regardless of gender or background, the new chief will have an additional challenge in directing a department that’s increasingly split among officers who joined in the 1990s during “tough on crime” campaigns, and those who joined in the 2010s during the post-Trayvon Martin Black Lives Matter efforts.
“I’m continuing to ask and have been asking, What do we want to see in our next police chief?” Braxton Winston, a city council member whose political career began when he was a leading voice in the Scott protests, told me recently.
Winston describes his relationship with Putney as “pretty good.” He has specific traits he hopes to see in the next chief, and some, of course, involve perceptions of use-of-force. “We gotta get to the point where CIT (crisis intervention) training is able to be used even when there’s a weapon in place,” he says.
District 6 councilman Tariq Bokhari, a Republican who is facing a re-election challenge from Democrat Gina Navarrette in November, has been an outspoken police advocate for years. In fact, in 2008, when he was in his late-20s, Bokhari’s name showed up in a news article from a forum where the three potential police chiefs were interviewed by the community.
Bokhari’s question for Rodney Monroe that night was about repeat offenders. He’s been asking it of Putney and Merriweather and the judges, too, this year. And it’s likely the question he would ask the candidates to follow Putney. He has other traits he’d like to see in the next chief, too.
“The biggest is the balance between supporting your officers, giving your men and women air cover,” Bokhari said to me recently. “But at the same time if you (officer) do something wrong, truly wrong, you’re going to be held accountable.”
CMPD did not make Putney available for a one-on-one interview for this story this week, but on Wednesday the chief made a surprise appearance at the quarterly crime stats update press conference. Most of the questions reporters asked him were about the timing of his retirement announcement and whether he violated the law.
Now here’s Kerr Putney, the police chief who talks about the importance of transparency all the time, who’s been criticized harshly in times when citizens didn’t believe he was being transparent enough, hung up in retirement limbo because he said too much.
Public employees leave jobs and return to similar positions all the time. Teachers retire after 30 years to get a pension check, then work in schools in administrative roles. The state allows that, up to a certain number of hours, without trouble.
Essentially, one way Putney could’ve avoided the current controversy is if he’d just winked.
He stood at CMPD headquarters on Wednesday and took a few questions, one of which is shared by people all around town: Why didn’t he just wait until after the RNC to retire anyway?
Kerr Putney didn’t have to hesitate to answer that one.
“I’ve earned a retirement,” he said, “and I’m going to take it when I can get it.”