Izabella Ehrenburg's husband is dead, gunned down in his own home, and she desperately wants answers.
Over a year has passed since Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police shot and killed 67-year-old Alexander "Sasha" Ehrenburg, a double amputee who used a wheelchair, after a physician -- worried about a medical problem Ehrenburg experienced -- called and asked that they check on him.
Ehrenburg's wife was out of town at the time, and what happened next baffles family and friends of a man who won a Congressional medal for helping Americans adopt needy children from overseas.
Ehrenburg refused to come to the door of his home on Amity Springs Drive -- or couldn't. After what police describe as a three-hour standoff, Ehrenburg's door was broken down and an officer who saw him pointing a gun shot him twice. Ehrenburg never fired a shot, and Jeff Barnhart, a family friend, says he had laid his clothes out for the next day and was charging his wheelchair in the garage.
Nobody is accusing police of wrongdoing here, says Barnhart, a family friend and state legislator from Concord who is acting as Ehrenburg's spokesperson.
But what Izabella Ehrenburg really needs to put all this behind her is some kind of time line, a step-by-step look at what happened that night, to see the results of the criminal investigation into the shooting. Something.
So far though, Ehrenburg has gotten close to zip, says Barnhart. He says that while the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has talked with the family about what might have happened, they haven't painted a complete picture and they shared little in the way of documentation.
"Everything has been sealed up," said Barnhart. "They don't show us anything. We asked for an SBI investigation and that's a joke. They (CMPD) don't want anybody from the outside."
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, says that while state law doesn't require the police to share the results of their criminal investigation with Ehrenburg or the public, they could if they chose to. With the case closed and no criminal charges filed against the officer who shot Ehrenburg, it's hard to understand why the police would hesitate share the results of their investigation with Ehrenburg's family, Barnhart says.
Barnhart, a Republican, says he is a strong supporter of law enforcement, but after the recent shooting of cell-tower worker Wayne Furr by Charlotte police, the public needs the kind of answers only full disclosure and an outside investigation can provide.
Furr was killed by a police officer in July while working on a cell tower off Albemarle Road in the Independence police patrol division, the same one Ehrenburg was killed in. CMPD Public Information Officer Amanda Giannini says that Ehrenburg was killed by a SWAT officer who was not from the division.
Police received a complaint of suspicious activity around the tower, and when officers arrived and one of them confronted Furr, who was on the job at the time, police say he refused to drop his gun. Like Ehrenburg, Furr, a father of two, had a great reputation among those who knew him and no criminal record.
The Furr and Ehrenburg cases could point to procedural or other problems at the police department. Or maybe not. That's the problem, says Barnhart. Nobody knows.
"I think the biggest thing that happened in Sasha [Ehrenburg's] case was that they surprised him and had that been dealt with, Wayne Furr wouldn't have been surprised," said Barnhart. "I think that's the number one issue. How do you surprise people in their workplace or their living environment and expect them not to react?"
The Mecklenburg District Attorney's office reviewed the criminal investigations done by the police department in both cases and declined to charge the officers involved with a crime. But aside from county district attorneys, the only eyes that have seen the information that might answer Barnhart's questions belong to those who work for CMPD.
So far, CMPD has stubbornly declined to involve the State Bureau of Investigations in the cases. That's not how it would have been handled in many of the state's large metropolitan areas, police officials outside Charlotte say.
Representatives of each of the five major city police departments Creative Loafing contacted last week say they always involve the SBI in civilian shootings. Raleigh Police Department Public Information Officer Jim Sughrue says his department's written policy dictates that the SBI be called in to investigate any time the discharge of a firearm by an officer results in an injury to another person. Ditto for Winston-Salem, Asheville and Durham.
"It does help to satisfy the public that someone from the outside is looking at it," Winston-Salem Police Captain Kevin Leonard says.
Wilmington Police Information Officer Sergeant W. Kennedy, who is holding the public information position temporarily until the slot is filled, says he was recently personally involved in a civilian shooting and was relieved when the SBI took over the investigation because it assured the public, which helps take the spotlight off of officers who pull the trigger in the line of duty.
At deadline, three days after we made the same request of the CMPD, Giannini, the department's spokesperson, said they were still working on Creative Loafing's information request, which included questions about how CMPD makes decisions about when to call outside agencies in after a police shooting.
According to state law, in addition to law enforcement officials, the county district attorney can also call for an investigation by the SBI after a police shooting,
Mecklenburg County Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser says that when decisions are made by the police and the DA not to call the SBI in, it is often probably a matter of resources. Menser says that CMPD has better resources than the SBI does, including a crime lab in Charlotte with faster processing times. Unlike SBI staff, who don't work in the area in large numbers, CMPD officers who investigate these police shootings are also right here and don't have to travel from Raleigh.
"We have had confidence in the quality of their investigations and they [CMPD} have enormous resources to put on the scene very quickly," said Menser. "I can understand people talking about the independence of the investigation. The department works hard to do a thorough investigation. Their credibility depends on it."
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