CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather announced Friday his plan for countywide independent investigations of officer-involved shootings that cause a death or serious injury.
Merriweather is requesting the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation investigate the shootings in Mecklenburg County.
The district attorney’s office said every police department in the county, except the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, already turns over officer-involved shooting investigations to the SBI.
“CMPD has conducted professional and extraordinarily thorough investigations of shootings involving the department’s officers, and the district attorney’s office has been confident in the integrity of those investigations,” Merriweather said. “Nevertheless, just as we counsel our prosecutors and staff against the appearance of a conflict of interest, we must do what we can to ensure we avoid perceived conflict in these investigations whenever possible. The criminal justice system cannot – and should not – function without public confidence.”
Once the SBI’s investigation is finished, it will then go to the district attorney’s office to determine whether to file criminal charges.
Danquirs Franklin died after he was shot by a CMPD officer, and the department investigated the officer-involved shooting.
"We’re very confident in the CMPD officers that investigate officer-involved shootings," Chris Kopp, a Fraternal Order of Police spokesman, said.
Critics have felt that was a mistake because it could be a conflict of interest.
"It's fractured,” Darrel Gregory, who is with the NAACP, said. “There is a lot of distrust on both sides."
The district attorney’s office said Merriweather has notified the SBI director and CMPD Chief Kerry Putney about this decision.
Putney has opposed getting state investigators involved.
"You may not know, the family of the decedent always has the right to ask for the SBI to come in,” Putney said. “This makes it automatic."
Putney said he has confidence in the detectives who investigate officer-involved shootings, but he does not object to the DA's decision.
"I can tell you this, I'm proud of the work our detectives have done and continue to do. I'm proud of the support we give to all victims," Putney said. "It gives me great confidence to know that the interest of the public reigns supreme."
He said CMPD will cooperate with SBI investigatiors.
The district attorney's office said the new policy will take effect once it develops protocol to handle any issues, like standard procedures for local police to secure the crime scene until SBI investigators can arrive.
"Whatever determination comes from it, you can rest a little more easy knowing that the agency involved did not do a self-investigation," Gregory said.
The FOP agrees and hopes the move doesn’t give a public perception that CMPD wasn't up to the job. The organization is concerned that independence doesn’t create more confusion than it solves.
"We would hope, ultimately, all three of these teams would have the same conclusion," Kopp said.
The district attorney’s office said Merriweather has been considering this option for months. He also went to the Charlotte Citizens Review Board’s August meeting where he heard its recommendation for independent investigations of officer-involved shootings.
Two local mothers who said their children were killed in police shootings said they are happy to see the SBI leading investigations.
Bonita Winchester said her son Aaron Winchester was shot and killed by a police officer in 2008.
Meko's son La Reko Williams died after being shocked with a taser by an officer in 2011 and CMPD temporarily suspended its use of tasers because of it.
In both cases the officers involved were cleared in the criminal investigations, but the mothers feel they never got any real answers.
"We need to know there is accountability and when there is no accountability we have a problem with that," Meko said. "I do feel it's a big thing and I commend him (DA) for going outside the box to take that big step and say it's time for change and we need it."
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