CHARLOTTE — Amid a rise in violent crime across the Charlotte area, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings has been outspoken about the challenges his officers are facing in the department.
On Friday, Chief Jennings met with Channel 9′s Allison Latos to discuss his thoughts on systemic problems in the arrest cycle. The interview is below.
Allison Latos: We’ve been hearing your frustration, and your fellow officers’ frustration really for quite some time. So tell me now, I mean, this has just gotten to the point now where you’re, you’re really calling for change. What do you want to see happen?
Chief Johnny Jennings: My goal is to see more structure, more organization, more accountability, and just to have some sort of consistency when it comes to setting bonds, particularly for the violent offenders and, not just in Mecklenburg County, but for the entire state. Some of my colleagues across the state are experiencing the same frustrations. And it just got to a point to where we’re feeling like it needs to be heard, we need to be vocal about it and we need to start looking at how we can help make change to keep our citizens safe.
Latos: What’s your biggest concern, not only for public safety, but for the ability to attract and retain police officers?
Jennings: It’s very difficult when you have an investigation, and you have officers that put their heart and soul into it and investigation to keep our community safe. And we do an investigation where we’re able to make probable cause to make an arrest, only to see that individual get out on a very low bond, or even get out in general, because as much as I’m for protecting and having the due process of those, particularly with low misdemeanor offenses that need to have that ability, to either get out until their trial date. But there are certain people in our society that we should not allow back out and have that revolving door. If they’re continuously committing violent acts against our citizens in our community.
Latos: What conversations have you had to this point with our judges and magistrates on this?
Jennings: I’ve had some really good conversations. I actually have a standing meeting every month with the chief District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch, and we have these discussions. We have a good relationship with Chief Magistrate Wanda Moore, that we have certain members in our department that they’re able to have that open dialogue with her. And in I think that, even though we’re able to bring some of this to the forefront and talk about some of these things ... they don’t have as much control over the situations that we would like them to see. And that’s another part of when I talk about structure with the magistrates, and how their accountability and who they answer to and, and how that all works. I think that we really could have some room to tighten that up a little bit.
Latos: So who fixes that problem?
Jennings: Well, you have to have legislation to fix it. It has to be something that the structure of the magistrate’s office across the state because it’s something that would affect statewide, and there has to be some law changes that maybe formalizes this a little bit better, and to maybe have more accountability on that end as well.
Latos: Can it even be more specific to Mecklenburg County, because I’ve heard from some police officers that if you get picked up in a crime, similar crime in a neighboring county, it’s not so easy for you to get out. And we know that in 2019, Mecklenburg County enacted some bail policy reform as part of their work with the MacArthur Foundation and this safe justice challenge. So do you think that bail reform went too far?
Jennings: No, I think that when I look at the bail reform, and the discussions that I’ve had prior to this date about bail reform, it was, to me, more geared towards your low-level misdemeanor offenders who were spending significant amounts of time in jail, who had they only had a court date, they would not have been sentenced to that long, so they were doing more time in jail, waiting on their trial date than they would have had they had that trial immediately. And that’s where I was all for, and I’m all for that, too, when we talk about bail reform, because you shouldn’t penalize someone based on their economic status, because they can’t afford to get out of jail for an offense that they should have that opportunity to get a jail for. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the people who are shooting people in the streets who are robbing our citizens, who are preying upon them in a violent fashion. Those are the ones that I think really should be looked at a little bit harder than to allow them the opportunity to simply get arrested and be out of jail within hours.
Latos: I was doing a little research on Mecklenburg County in their work with the MacArthur Foundation and they’ve received a lot of money since I think 2015 focused on criminal justice, but their website even acknowledged that there’s a real issue facing Mecklenburg County and a violent crime increase, specifically with homicides. And they’ve got a task force I guess, of 10 people. Are you on that community engagement Task Force? Or have you been invited to the conversation about what more can be done from the judicial side of things?
Jennings: I have not, and so I’ve not spoken with them at all. But what I can tell you is we talked about the frustration. Like some of the frustration is about, you can go to one county, and the bond is set at a certain level, and you can go to another county, and it’s not. And so with that, even the ones that are getting those higher bonds, those departments are seeing the same inconsistencies that we see here in Mecklenburg County. All we’re asking for is that we have some uniformity throughout the state, and we know that certain other states that when an offender goes into another state, and those bonds are set, that they probably see significantly higher bonds, and it’s harder for them to get out. But, you know, these conversations I think, are important, and they need to, they need to be happening.
Latos: How critical is this need? And how quickly do you think anything will really get done about it?
Jennings: It’s a marathon right now, it’s definitely not a sprint. I don’t think we’re going to make anything happen tomorrow. But I do think that we need to be more intentional. When it comes to magistrates, when they start looking at these bonds, they need to really take a good hard look at the previous offenses in what type of offenses those are when we make those arrests. If you have somebody who’s been arrested 15 times on violent crime, and you take them to jail for shooting another individual, then that should be a very, very difficult task to be able to bond out for an offense like that.
Latos: So do you think the matrix that they’re using right now, this conditional release matrix, is working? Or would you rather see them go back to sort of the range they had where it was this charge should get a bond within this amount of money?
Jennings: I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what the solution is going to eventually be or what it is right now. What I can tell you is that we need to start having these conversations about how those bonds are set. However, whatever that matrix is: you shoot a police officer, you should not get a $50,000 bond for that offense, and you shoot into an occupied property where there are patrons inside of a business, you should not get $30,000 bond or whatever that bond might be. It should be something that, in my opinion, should be put in front of a judge and let that judge decide after they hear more of the facts and hear the history of that individual.
Latos: We know you met with the governor and the Attorney General of the State. But before it even gets to our governor, you know, we have to have our legislators introduce legislation and it passed through the House and Senate. So are you having any conversations with lawmakers right now? Is anybody saying, “I’m going to pick up this torch and make sure that something gets done?”
Jennings: We have means of doing that I have not yet. We’re still very early into this. We’re only a couple of months out from our officer being shot. And like you said, legislators are not in session at this time. But I do know that I owe it to my department, I owe it to this profession, that we’re going to push forward and see what changes we can make. We’re just one piece of the criminal justice system. We’re expected to keep our community safe. Every other piece has to work in conjunction and be able to work together to keep our community safe. And that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.
Latos: Was that a final straw moment for you, that incident?
Jennings: You know, I don’t want to say a final straw moment. But it was a moment where I felt like I had a responsibility now to come forward and really started to speak. We have been having these discussions about the fluctuation in bonds with the appropriate people. But that was just Mecklenburg County. And then as I speak with my colleagues, and they have some of the same issues. This was a time for me to say we really need to bring this to people’s attention. And we really need to start having discussions. And it’s nothing personal towards anyone, it’s not to say that our magistrates are not doing their job or not doing a good job. I just think they need a little more, a little more structure and how they do that job and when if they can do that, then I think they can be successful on their end of the criminal justice system as well.
Latos: Where is this on priorities for you to tackle?
Jennings: We start looking at juvenile crime and gun violence and things, we have to be able to do something with juvenile crime and guns, we also have to look at recruitment and retention. Those are some of the biggest issues affecting our department right now. But at the same time, this is something that although it’s up there on the list, it can’t be ignored. But we know we have other priorities that we have to deal with. But it also plays into morale, you know if you can imagine what the officers felt when you had an individual lying in wait, and shoots one of our officers and shoots at another officer and shoots into an occupied business. And then to see what that bond was, it was just absolutely gut-wrenching, and it plays on the morale of our officers; like is that the value that’s put on us to give a bond to attempted murder charges on a police officer? $50,000 a piece, and that’s just unfathomable to what we do in our profession that it would be so low and not even necessarily because it was a police officer, because it was a human being that was shot and somebody’s targeting for that individual and that’s what was frustrating.
(WATCH BELOW: CMPD chief concerned about bonds set for violent criminals)
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