Editor's NotesNews & Opinion

Editor’s Note: Transparency Is Not Accountability

CMPD's refusal to take action against the men who ordered the June 2 ambush signals their approval

Every day it becomes a little more clear that nobody is willing to hold the police accountable in this city.

On Aug. 28, we published a detailed account of the now-infamous kettling incident that took place during protests in Uptown on June 2.

For those who aren’t aware, the incident involved riot police using tear gas to trap protesters on East 4th Street between South College and South Tryon streets then shooting down on them from above with pepper balls, which are similar to paintballs but filled with a chemical agent.

Though there were unconfirmed reports of a protester throwing things at police officers and others spraying some unknown substance at them about 30 minutes prior to this attack, by the time officers carried out the ambush, they did so on hundreds of peacefully marching protesters.

Queen City Nerve publisher Justin LaFrancois recorded the entire incident on a live-stream video. He was in the midst of the group, documenting the protest, and ended up trapped alongside them. He and a group of others had to pull up a closed garage door and escape underneath it as he nearly asphyxiated from the barrage of tear gas and pepper balls.

When you watch Justin’s footage, you can feel his panic viscerally. He has told me multiple times that he has never felt so close to death as he did in that moment, and this man has been through some shit. His raw, unfiltered reaction to what was happening is part of why the footage went viral.

June 2 Kettling Incident
View of June 2 tear gas incident from building looking west. (Still from CMPD footage) 

Millions of people have viewed the live-stream video that he took that night. Almost immediately, Justin’s coverage led to calls for reform from local, state and national leaders. And then the discussion just sort of … stopped.

To be clear, outrage from residents who watched the video did lead to a few reforms, including changes in CMPD policy around the use of tear gas. It has been discussed to death, each time CMPD leaders claiming that the whole thing was just a “tactical mistake.”

Days after the incident, then-Chief Kerr Putney held a virtual press conference in which he stated that he didn’t like the “optics” around the incident and that he “couldn’t wait” until he could share the footage that CMPD had, which he implied would justify all of the department’s actions and show that our one-sided coverage was misleading.

Then he retired.

Since then, new Chief Johnny Jennings has taken the reins. Jennings has said all the right things regarding transparency at the department, and on Aug. 26, his department released all the footage they say they have from the night of June 2. That includes 57 videos taken from body cameras that officers were wearing that night, and a handful of surveillance videos taken from nearby cameras.

Despite claims to the contrary by department officials, the footage confirms that the trapping of peaceful protesters with gas on East 4th Street that night was a planned ambush that was devised by Maj. Rob Dance, the supervising officer, and carried out by his platoon and another platoon supervised by Lt. Chris Rorie.

In one body-cam video, a supervising sergeant of a CMPD bike squad describes the plan beforehand to a fellow officer, stating, “Rorie’s got a platoon on Tryon out of sight, Dance’s platoon is staged now on College out of sight. We’re gonna push their ass straight up 4th. As soon as they get up on 4th, we got ’em bottlenecked now, Rorie’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass. When they start running down, Dance’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass with gas… We’re gonna fuckin’ pop it up.”

The sergeant then stands behind a wall of bike police as the protesters walk by and says, “Wave goodbye, they’re all about to get gassed.”

Though CMPD would not release the man’s name, Queen City Nerve confirmed through two sources that he is Sgt. Scott Sherwood. The department announced on the day of the release that Sherwood has been suspended for two weeks for making “unprofessional, insensitive and unacceptable” comments in the video.

His suspension ended on the day that this paper hit the streets. Neither Dance nor Rorie have been disciplined for their roles in the incident, at least in any public way.

That leaves me with one question: How does it end with Sherwood? This man did not have anything to do with the incident. He didn’t plan it, he didn’t carry it out; he was suspended simply for talking about it excitedly, as I’m sure countless officers did that night.

I’ve listened and watched as city council members have discussed this incident many times, before and after the body-camera footage was released, and despite the fact that the videos and our reporting have confirmed this was a planned ambush beyond any reasonable doubt, these people are still wishy-washy on whether the attack was even purposeful or not.

If you watch that footage with anything close to a critical eye, it could not be more clear what happened that night. The problem here is not a lack of transparency, it’s a lack of accountability. Majors answer to Deputy Chiefs, and Deputy Chiefs answer to the Chief. If there were any accountability in this department whatsoever, Dance would be answering for his actions that night.

Without that, transparency means nothing.

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