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CMPD Use-of-Force Reporting Skews Numbers During Protest Activity

Cooking the books

CMPD officers with the Civil Emergency Unit aim non-lethal weapon at protesters
Civil Emergency Unit officers at the Metro Division office on May 29. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

On the night of June 2, 2020, peaceful protesters marched into the intersection of East 5th and North McDowell streets and were hit with nine diversionary explosive devices, also known as flashbangs. This would mark the beginning of the most aggressive large-scale attack on citizens by police in Charlotte’s history, as a few blocks away, the same protesters would be flanked and ambushed by CMPD officers implementing a kettling technique. The attack made national headlines, changed how CMPD is allowed to spend its money, and inspired a bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives.

According to CMPD records, the nine flashbangs deployed at 5th and McDowell, the countless flashbangs used between Tryon and College streets on East 4th Street, the seemingly endless barrage of pepper balls that officers fired on protesters from ground level and a parking garage above, and canister after canister of tear gas used in a 30-minute period after 9 p.m. on June 2, 2020 were all counted as one use-of-force incident by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

A November 2020 article by the Portland Mercury compared use-of-force incidents against protesters between April 1 and June 30, 2020, to use-of-force incidents against protesters between January 2016 and January 2020. The number of incidents during the three-month period of Portland protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd in May of 2020 were three times higher than that of the previous four years combined. Physical force and weapons were used only 778 times between 2016 and 2020, but 2,378 incidents of physical force and use of weapons by police were reported between April and June of 2020.

Portland police officers are required to self-report their own use-of-force incidents after protest activity.

Comparing reported use-of-force incidents by CMPD during localized civil unrest in 2020 and protests in response to the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016 shows how, when it comes to recording use-of-force incidents during large-scale protests in Charlotte, the department skews the numbers.

How are incidents of force reported in CMPD?

According to CMPD directive 600-019(7)(g) a Supervisor Investigative Report is filed when, “The Civil Emergency Unit or other specialized unit uses the less lethal option(s) to disperse rioters, mobs, crowds, or barricaded subjects. In this situation the commander of [that] unit will complete one Supervisor’s Investigative Report.”

The reports are used to document each singular incident of use of force internally within CMPD. These investigations are required in any situation that clearly involves the use of a less lethal or lethal control method, according to the directive.

After any of these incidents are reported, an investigation is logged in the Internal Affairs Case Management System and then investigated by an officer’s immediate supervisor, and adjudicated throughout the officer’s chain of command, according to a representative with CMPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Logging all use of force incidents as one event during periods of civil unrest causes skewed numbers, working in favor of the department’s messaging strategies, since residents cannot confirm the true number of times force was used during response to a protest.

These skewed numbers are included in the year-end Internal Affairs report outlining the annual number of use-of-force incidents.

The average annual Total Use of Force incidents hasn’t changed, but the number of incidents broken out into racial demographics or by how many weapons were used during each incident have continued to increase.

No data for use-of-force incidents by race is available after 2012, which is when CMPD stopped including the demographic breakdown in their annual reports.

The practice of grouping all use-of-force incidents during a given protest into one report makes it difficult for residents to file a complaint against an individual officer for using force during protest activity, or to track which officers may be acting overzealous with their weapons.

However, the incidents are more accurately logged internally so the department can assign complaints to individual officers who were present and active during each event.

Each event report filed with Internal Affairs during protest activity contains a Grenadier Usage Form that includes an officer’s name, platoon number and date of incident that logs all munitions used by each individual officer and platoon so that if an external complaint is filed, it can be attached to a platoon or an officer in that area or at that time.

An IA representative outlined how these events are logged by stating, “In the event an unlawful assembly was declared, and riot control agents were utilized at a single location and within a sustained operational period, any and all riot control agents deployed would be captured in one IACMS investigative case. The munitions log is attached to the investigative file to account for all munitions utilized and their respective operator/officer. The IACMS investigation is completed by the CEU commander.

Though the department keeps more accurate logs internally, the more detailed reporting on types of weapons used during a use-of-force incident in the Internal Affairs Bureau annual report does not accurately reflect the amount of weapons used during the protests in 2020, as you can see in the chart below.

In the event an individual comes forward to file a complaint for excessive force, whether at the time of the event or in the following days, the individual will be added to the existing case as a complainant, an allegation of Rule of Conduct 28A will be added to the officer(s)’ file, and the complaint will be investigated by Internal Affairs.

If multiple people file complaints for acts that occurred within the same event, they are all added to the existing case file. The Use of Force event is counted as one event.  Complaints of excessive use of force are counted individually when complaint data is calculated.

Use-of-force events during the 2020 Charlotte protests

There are only three ROC 28A complaints in one file stemming from the protests in Charlotte between May 29 and August 31, 2020.

“At any point during the investigative process if the chain of command has concern that the use of force may be excessive (not within policy), an allegation of Rule of Conduct 28A: Excessive Use of Force will be added to the case (applied to the appropriate officer or officers) and transferred to Internal Affairs for further investigation,” an Internal Affairs representative stated. 

“When a citizen lodges a complaint of excessive use of force by an officer, the same method applies, an allegation of Rule of Conduct 28A is entered into the IACMS and an Internal Affairs investigation is initiated,” they continued.

According to files obtained through a public records request, on Beatties Ford Road on May 29, the first evening of protests in Charlotte, there were two use-of-force events consisting of six use-of-force allegations with no excessive ROC 28A allegations.

For the protests that occurred in Uptown between May 29 and Aug. 21, there were 22 use-of-force events consisting of 64 use-of-force allegations with just one ROC 28A allegation.

During the time of the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Charlotte there were nine use-of-force events consisting of 36 use-of-force allegations with two ROC 28A allegations recorded.

CMPD use of force numbers during protest activity
Data supplied by CMPD through a public records request

In total, there were 33 use-of-force events with 106 use-of-force allegations recorded during the 2020 Charlotte protests, which went on for nearly 90 days and made national headlines due to CMPD’s use of force and dispersal activity. In total, there were only 418 use-of-force incidents reported in 2020 by CMPD compared to 453 in 2019.

Advocates and activists have been working on police reform, transparency and abolition over the past year, including one of the larger initiatives to come through the city of Charlotte: the 8 Can’t Wait national initiative by Campaign Zero. One of the eight pillars of the initiative is around comprehensive reporting and documenting of police behavior, and working to align incident reporting by police departments across the country to make publicly available information more uniform and give the public a better avenue to hold their departments accountable.

Community continues to push for reform and transparency

Some of the discussion around comprehensive reporting from last year was focused on whether pointing a service weapon at a civilian should be counted as a use-of-force incident. Federico Rios of the Safe Communities Committee Community Input Group (SCCCIG) stated that beyond wanting to add pointing a firearm as a reportable use of force, the SCCCIG felt the department needed to make its reporting policies more comprehensive and more transparent.

“Across the board, we needed better comprehensive reporting, we needed better data, to hold departments accountable, and in our case we needed to make our data more readily available to the public,” Rios said.

Robert Dawkins of SAFE Coalition NC, who also served on the SCCCIG, believes more comprehensive reporting includes different departments getting on the same page.

“It’s been an issue,” he told Queen City Nerve. “We’ve asked on the state level, and people are asking on the federal level, for uniform reporting. That’s one of things when we look at the George Floyd [Justice in Policing] Act that has always been an issue — not just about justified or unjustified shootings by police, but also how police departments record all other instances differently.”

One of the main facets of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a civil rights and police reform bill introduced into the U.S. House in February 2021, is to improve transparency through data collection. The bill, which has not yet passed through the U.S. Senate, includes reporting requirements for local police departments on all incidents involving force including the national origin, sex, race, ethnicity, age, disability, English language proficiency, and housing status of each civilian targeted; the date, time, and location of the incident; whether the civilian was armed; the type of force used; the reason force was used; a description of any injuries sustained; the number of officers and civilians involved in the incident; and a brief description regarding the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Making these descriptions required by law would put more pressure on police departments to accurately and publicly report individual use-of-force incidents during periods of protest.

Protest activity in Uptown Charlotte
Protesters dodge tear gas in Uptown. (Photo by Joshua Galloway)

The June 2 kettling incident, carried out by CMPD Major Robert Dance and Lieutenant Chris Rorie, made national headlines, but there are many unreported incidents of force used by CMPD throughout the period of protests in 2020.

One event occurred the evening before the first day of the RNC. On Aug. 23 at around 11:30 p.m., officers Queen City Nerve has identified as Charles Famulari, Joshua Grout and John Koukopoulos advanced on their bikes as part of the Public Order Bike unit of the Civil Emergency Unit, presumably at the command of Sergeant Brandon Overcash, toward a group of protesters occupying the intersection of Trade and Tryon streets and surrounding a vehicle.

In our video recording of the incident, the officers can be seen pedaling rapidly into the crowd and lowering their shoulders as they proceed to use themselves and their bicycles as a battering ram to clear the crowd. One officer ended up on the ground with one of the protesters he had just knocked off their feet.

There are no complaint or incident files reported for this specific incident and it has since been shuffled into one of 139 events and allegations reported during the protests. Because of the lack of individual reporting during civil unrest and the inability for people on the street to identify officers because they wear only patches with three-digit numbers as identifiers, these officers have not yet been held accountable for their aggressive actions during that evening.

As a witness to roughly 100 different instances of CMPD officers using their bikes to separate members of a crowd, this was the first time I had witnessed the decision to not dismount the bike and use it as a pushing mechanism to disperse the crowd. And because of the reporting structure, it was just added to a pool of incidents containing pepper spray, pepper balls and police-bike-to-human-skin contact.

Since anything that occurred during a period of time that CMPD determines as being one event, this incident and all other incidents from that evening are reported as one use of force. Because officers are not required to report their own incidents of using force during protest activity, this has been swept away.

“It gives you a false sense that things are turning, at the same time it gives you a place to hide your numbers,” Dawkins said of the current policy. “To have true transparency you can’t have them be able to do things like grouping or things like lowering how things are classified and hopefully we took the first step with comprehensive reporting, and hopefully with your reporting it will come up. What’s the next step that we need to do as far as reporting to get transparency?”

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