Here we go again.
This time, LaQuan Hykeem Davon Brown, 16, was shot and killed while fleeing from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers with a gun in his hand. As he ran from them, police say, he raised one of his hands and they shot him.
So far, the most critical details of the shooting -- and the most potentially damning ones from a public relations point of view -- are the very ones that have not been included in the official police account.
That is, unfortunately, typical of how the department handles these shootings. Was the hand Brown raised the one holding the gun? They won't say. Where was he shot? In the chest as he turned to fire? Or in the back? Again, they won't say. A slew of other unanswered questions remain.
Brown had a long criminal record that included felony auto theft and felony possession of a stolen gun. At the time he ran from police with a gun in his hand that he had no legal right to possess, he had a warrant out for his arrest for skipping out on his bond, which is probably why he ran from the two officers who pursued him.
Brown put police in a terrible position, and to be clear, I'm not implying that the police did anything wrong here. It is entirely possible that they didn't. But with a quarter of the relevant details, who can possibly know for sure?
The investigation into Brown's shooting is still ongoing, so I don't expect to get all the details right away. The problem is that if this shooting follows the same pattern as others by CMPD officers in recent years, the public will never know the full details of what happened.
If the city of Charlotte spends $54.97 to buy a case of Kleenex and I want to know about it, the city must give me a full accounting if I ask. But police officers, who are city employees, can shoot a man dead and the police department, which is a city department, doesn't have to divulge a single damned detail about what happened.
State law allows police departments to keep these details a secret from the public, but it doesn't mandate it. The police could disclose the files on these cases to the public, but the city chooses not to. (A new law passed this year mandates that police share details of these shootings with victim's families, but not with the public.)
Legal experts say 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 CMPD hunker down and spin these shootings like they would a department cupcake party for orphans.
In 2005, officers gunned down a 67-year-old double amputee in a wheelchair in his own home after he, a man with no crimnal record, refused medical help. A year later, they killed cell tower worker Wayne Furr, who also had no criminal record, after they came upon him at work inside a cell tower while investigating a disturbance call. Both men had guns that they carried for self defense, and it is possible that both shootings were terrible but unavoidable misunderstandings for which the police can't be blamed. The problem is that the public will likely never know.
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney declined to file charges against police in either case. Investigations in both cases have been long since closed, and the files sit gathering dust. But the department still stubbornly refuses to make the full details of the cases public. Lawsuits are pending in both cases, but again, CMPD could release the facts to the public because they may be forced to do so in court anyway.
Citizens shouldn't have to hope to find out the details of shooting cases from dueling legal briefs that make wildly different claims -- if a lawsuit even gets that far. We should make these investigatory files public.
An investigation of the Ehrenburg case by Creative Loafing last year found that police may have violated their own standards for entry -- what few standards they have. Worse yet, two versions of what happened that night appear to conflict with one another.
The department's stubborn insistence on burying this stuff makes giving its leadership the benefit of the doubt in these shootings very difficult to do. Worse yet, the Citizen's Review Board, which was sold to the public as an outlet for victims' families to request a second look at these shootings, has turned out to be little more than a public relations tool primed to clear police of wrongdoing.
According to its bylaws, the 11-member review board makes its decisions based on a "summary" of events provided by the police chief. There are no rules governing what facts and evidence the chief must include, so the review board sees whatever he wants them to see. It's the equivalent of a defendant in a homicide case having sole discretion over what a jury will see. The burden of challenging the police version of the story falls to victims' families.
So ultimately, the truth in these cases is whatever the police say it is. And that is never a good way to operate if you want the public's respect and trust.