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Are Charlotte Police Engaged in Racial Profiling?

City council members peeved over details of CMPD request

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It appears that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrel Stephens inadvertently left a few critical details out of his pitch to the Charlotte City Council Monday night on banning the display of guns uptown.

Stephens told council members that four people had been seen openly carrying guns uptown recently, and that in one case the carrier wore gang clothing. What he didn't mention -- and in fairness to him, nobody asked -- was that in three of the four cases, the person carrying the gun was a black male. At deadline, police were still searching for the report on the fourth incident and didn't know the race of that individual.

Charlotte City Council Member James Mitchell says the new information only increases his reservations about the proposed ban.

"You mean to tell me that the only ones you got were African Americans, like black folks are the only ones that carry guns?" said Mitchell. "The presentation came across like everyone who carries guns is part of a gang and that's why we're doing this. So now are [we] saying we have to do this because four African Americans are carrying guns? Either way, it doesn't sit well with me. What I don't like is the fact that it was small numbers and they are all African Americans."

Police attorney Mark Newbold insists racial profiling did not play a part in the department's request for a gun-display ban.

"Officers lawfully initiated the voluntary contacts with the citizens solely because they were wearing a gun open and not concealed in a crowded area," Newbold wrote in a response to Creative Loafing's inquiry. "The reason for the contacts was to ensure public safety and was not based on race."

On Monday, Stephens told the city council that police observed two of the incidents and that the other two were reported by citizens who called them in. But after CL requested transcripts of 911 calls made by the citizens who reported two of the incidents, police officials determined that no calls by citizens to police were actually made.

In reality, all four incidents were observed by police. In one incident, which could technically qualify as a citizen complaint, a visitor from Holland asked an officer why people couldn't carry beer in the street if others could carry guns. But that was after officers had already approached the gun-toter.

In each of the three cases for which police could find records, the male with the gun was walking with a group of five to seven African American men when officers stopped him.

Here's how police attorney Newbold described the latest incident, which took place Oct. 1 in front of Fox and Hound on Tryon Street at 1am: "The group of about five people were all wearing T-shirts and jeans and one had a pistol at his side. Officers approached them and asked why they had a gun. They got some vague responses that there might be gangs around, but he wouldn't discuss it any further. The officer said, 'If you are not going to put it back in the car, we are going to walk with you if you are so worried about your safety.' He opted to put the gun away."

It doesn't appear police were trying to hide or omit details in their presentation to city council, because they were forthcoming in providing information when CL requested it.

But that didn't make city council member John Tabor any happier about the situation. "They should have known and probably did know that this was going to start a bit of a firestorm, and they should have had their act together before they came to city council," said Tabor. "I am pretty disappointed in what you are telling me."

Newbold said it shouldn't matter whether a citizen complained or not.

"Whether an officer observed the incidents or citizens reported the incidents to officers is not relevant," the police attorney wrote. "The issue for the public to decide is whether or not it is appropriate for persons to walk around Charlotte with a gun strapped to their hip."

Tabor said the situation doesn't strike him as racial profiling. It would be racial profiling, he said, if a lot of people were carrying guns openly and police only stopped African Americans and questioned them about it.

Council member Patsy Kinsey wasn't so sure.

"I don't know if it's profiling," said Kinsey. "If the person had been Caucasian, would it have caused the same reaction? That's the question."

Council member Warren Turner said he carries a gun as part of his job as a probation officer.

"That could have been me; that could have been the A.L.E.; that could have been any undercover officer," said Turner. "There's a lot of them down there."

Turner wasn't as concerned about the racial aspects of the stops as he was about the gang implication police made.

"I didn't like the way they tried to put this thing together and then send it through to us on a fear tactic just hoping we would pass it when we didn't have any information," said Turner.

The police and city staff hoped that the council would refer the ban to the city's public safety committee, which is generally the first step for getting something approved. Instead, the council turned down police and city officials, telling them to come back with more information.

Even then, said Turner, the ban could have a hard time getting through.

"I'll be chairman of the public safety committee and it won't pass then," said Turner. "I'll be surprised if they even come back with it."

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