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When Keystone Cops kill

It's time for a little police transparency

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First, they gunned down a cell phone tower worker while he was working on a cell phone tower. Then they shot and killed a 67-year-old wheelchair-bound man, with no criminal history, who refused the medical help they were trying to give him. They have since shot two men in the back in separate incidents, killing both. At least one of the men was unarmed and both had criminal records. Two of the men were white, two black, and all four cases were equally bizarre.

After a while this becomes a bit difficult to explain, even for those of us who would like to defend the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Last week, the department sent a couple dozen officers to a meeting in the Lockwood community in an attempt to placate neighbors outraged by the shooting of 21-year-old Aaron Winchester. Officers who work difficult jobs for little pay took a verbal drubbing from angry residents, some of whom claimed, according The Charlotte Observer, that Winchester was "assassinated."

That's a shame, because the real villains here are not the officers themselves. They're the city and police leaders who refuse to release the details of these shootings to the public after the investigations into them are closed.

Witnesses called police after Winchester and the mother of his child got into a fight after crashing the car they were driving. For some reason, when police arrived, Winchester took off running. Police say he had a gun in his hand and turned toward an officer, who shot him in the back. Neighbors claim he had no gun, though police say they found one next to the body.

Now the Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist, is launching an investigation, as if this whole fiasco is merely about race. Never mind the two dead white guys killed in what appears to be the same inexplicable Keystone fashion by this police department.

If history is any indicator, Sharpton or someone like him will probably succeed in turning this into a racial incident and somehow profiting from it. That would be a shame, because the problem isn't racial. It's attitudinal. It's not that there isn't an explanation in these cases, but that department and city leaders feel the community isn't entitled to one.

After Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shot and killed his wheelchair-bound friend, Alexander Ehrenburg, state Rep. Jeff Barnhart, R-Cabarrus, was shocked by how the department treated Ehrenburg's widow and by the scant details she was able to get about how he wound up dead while she was out of town. After extracting additional bullets from Ehrenburg's living room that the department neglected to account for in its official explanation, Barnhart went legislatively ballistic.

A new state law Barnhart pushed last year -- which Charlotte-Mecklenburg police opposed -- allows families of police shooting victims to request that the State Bureau of Investigation be called in to investigate. Before, the department did its own investigations, released whatever details it wanted to and usually cleared officers.

The law helps, but it isn't enough. While the families can get some details of the shootings, the public still can't. After the investigation, when police shooting cases are closed without charges against the officer, state law doesn't mandate that the files be open for public inspection. As the law currently stands, the department could share these with the public but doesn't have to do so. Burying details in personnel files allows departments to hide even more. That has to change. The public must be able to request these files.

Legal experts say police departments across the country typically take two different tracks in these cases. Some disclose the investigatory files to the public, knowing they will get sued either way. Others, like ours, hunker down and spin these shootings. They claim opening the files would expose them to lawsuits, even though they usually get sued anyway.

Odds are that most of these shootings were justified. But with the facts locked away from public view, it makes it look like the department is hiding something. Maybe in some cases it is. Regardless, police can hardly expect the public to just trust them when they aren't acting trustworthy.

Even some within the department wish it did things differently. After Creative Loafing investigated the Ehrenburg shooting, we were contacted by frustrated officers with knowledge of the case who wanted to address the disparities in the public account put forward by police, but couldn't because of the department's cover-it-up-at-all-costs policy.

It's a boneheaded public relations policy, one that hurts the relationships that the department mandates officers build with the community. So street-level officers get shouted down at community meetings and whatever witnesses say goes.

It was area residents' claims that Winchester had no gun when police shot him and out-of-context racial innuendo that dominated the news after the shooting. Is that what really happened? If history is any indicator, we'll never know.

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