Only on 9: CMPD Chief answers questions on new public information policy

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department introduced a new public information policy that officials say is meant to streamline the information-gathering process, but Channel 9 is speaking with Chief Johnny Jennings about concerns that the policy may actually be hindering timely access to information.

Channel 9′s Allison Latos spoke with Jennings on Monday, his answers are below.

Allison Latos: We appreciate the opportunity to sit down and talk about the department’s media strategy. And so first and foremost, can you just explain what has prompted this new strategy that CMPD is taking when it comes to working with the media? And overall, what’s the purpose of this?

Chief Johnny Jennings: Well, you know, the biggest thing is that we at CMPD are always looking for best practices and how can we be the most efficient and effective department that we can possibly be? For quite a while, we’ve been looking at how we are handling information requests from the media, particularly public information requests that we’ve been, for years, trying to be able to accommodate when you talk about deadlines, schedules and just basic information involving certain investigations that we might be doing. And at some point, it just, when you’re answering over 100 calls and emails per day, it can be overwhelming for people and taxing. And we were getting really closely to the point where we just couldn’t accommodate that anymore. So we had to basically kind of drop back and punt and let’s see how we can be more effective within that unit and be able to handle the plus-600 public records request that we’ve already had for this year. And I think those should be priority, those requests that we have to be able to provide any information, and we get several of those probably more than anyone in the city. And we have to accommodate for that as well.

And when you talk about public records requests, are you meaning requests for data and documentation and policies or just the day-of questions about crime activity happening throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg County?

Jennings: Yeah, public records requests are for the data, the things that we have to provide by law. Public information is simply inquiries about you know, “Why is there a high police presence at this neighborhood? or “Why is the helicopter flying over this neighborhood?” Those are just simply Public Information requests, and sometimes we just are not able to accommodate and fulfill those in the timeframe that’s needed. So we’re not necessarily ignoring those. What we’re trying to do is direct that information to be able to find it when you do have those requests coming in. We have other means that we are that you’re able to find that information about that.

So can you tell me how did this conversation evolve and who all was involved in determining that this was the best approach for the department?

Jennings: Well, honestly, the conversations have been going on for quite a while. The Public Information Office, we’ve been talking for, probably since 2020, about the just abundance of information that’s being requested. I know there was a big push around the city, in general, to be able to better respond to public records requests, and to get those in a more timely manner. And so as we’ve looked at it and evolved over the last couple of years. We’ve actually hired people in created positions to be able to fulfill public records requests, and we’ve also tried to bolster up our Public Information Office as much as we can. I truly feel like we are a step above across all agencies when it comes to being able to being responsive to the media, in answering those questions. And you know, at some point, we have to realize that we can’t be just simply a call center for that type of information. So we had to look at, what are we going to have to scale back on and then how can we be more efficient? And then this was basically the answer that we came up with.

But when there are instances across our community where residents are concerned about crime activity, or why the helicopter may be flying above or a lot of law enforcement, do they have a right to know about what’s happening in those moments?

Jennings: Oh, yeah, certainly. And I don’t think we’re taking that away. We’re not trying to say that we’re not going to provide that information. We just want to be able to direct the answers to that information that you might have, even the public. You want to look at our signup for our CMPD app, [there are] different ways that we can look at through our website or social media accounts. You know, we try to provide that information instantaneously. And rather than taking phone calls to answer those questions, we want to be able to provide that information directly without having to call and have an inquiry about it.

Are you mirroring this approach to any other departments across the country? What exactly did you analyze in figuring this out?

Jennings: We have looked at other agencies across the country. We’ve also looked at agencies that have said they’re not answering any questions from the media -- they’re going to provide their own stories, are going to put the information out in that they have, in some senses, shut the media out. And you know, I was adamant that we’re not going to do that. But we did want to look at a lot of this was in-house, this decision and discussions that we had about what is the best practice that we can have within CMPD and other agencies. We did look at to see what they’re doing as far as media is concerned, and just from the looks of what we’ve seen across the country. We do a pretty good job as far as transparency and our discussions in relationships with the media.

Has our city manager Marcus Jones signed off on this? Is he in support of this approach?

Jennings: I’ve had discussions with Marcus about this and he’s fully supportive of CMPD and our approach towards it. And you know, we really didn’t expect a lot of the attention that we’re getting over this. But yeah, those discussions even prior to implementation, we’re had with our city manager as well.

Some of the council members don’t seem to have been informed ahead of time. So is there a plan to discuss this with them now? Or a reason that they weren’t informed about the change either?

Jennings: Well, we put everything in place to inform City Council. We did send information over about what we were doing in this new process that we were looking at towards the media. So I’m not sure where that miscommunication might have fallen through but we did. We did our due diligence on our part to ensure that city council was aware of it.

Is recruitment and the challenge of recruiting and retaining law enforcement officers one of the reasons for this change?

Jennings: It’s not the reason for this change, but we certainly see the effects of some of the negative stories, some of the things that we see not just across the country. And, you know, the law enforcement profession right now is a very difficult one to sell to young people who are looking for careers. So what we see across the country with what’s going on with law enforcement, it is difficult to convince people to sign up for the job and sign up for a profession. That is not well thought of throughout social media, within media. And we really do, I think, need to turn that narrative around just a little bit.

But do you have any tangible proof that across the country, news coverage of crime in communities is directly correlated to a lack of interest in people pursuing this profession?

Jennings: Well, it’s not news coverage on crime, right, because I think that what we’re seeing is that the profession, if someone can be anywhere in this country with this profession and do something that might not be favorable towards the look of law enforcement, that affects the entire profession. If something happens in California, where an officer steps out of line and does something illegally or inappropriately, that affects our entire profession. I don’t know how many other professions have that type of challenges and burden within their organizations. So when we start looking at what we’re doing here in Charlotte, we want to be able to put those positive stories about what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is doing, and how we can always say that we’re always trying to be a step above and that’s our goal.

Do you know, to-date, how many open positions you have and then what the total number of uniformed officers on your force could be?

The number of vacancies fluctuates almost daily, and you know, if we hire a new recruit class, that number, of course, goes down by the number of recruit class, but then you also have streams of retirements that you might have, you know, 10 or 15 people retire in one month. So right now we’re pushing close to about 300 vacancies within our organization. We’re allocated over 1,900, and total positions are over 2,500 within the police department. And so as we’re trying to look at where we are losing people, if you look at the early ‘90s, we were allocated over 100, I think it was 125 officers, and I was part of that group, actually, in the early ‘90s. And as those officers now are retiring, there aren’t as many people lined up out the door to become police officers, good quality candidates that we can have that can replace them. It was easy in the early ‘90s. We were in the middle of a recession, and people were looking for jobs and the police department was a job that was favorable for a lot of young people coming out of college.

Do you believe that this new strategy with the media aligns with the department’s directives? We read them and a couple of them said: “To be accessible as possible to the people you serve,” and, “To respond accurately and promptly to media requests.” How does this new strategy fall in line with those directives?

Jennings: I think it absolutely does. We have to make the best use of the people that we have available. And if we have a unit that is simply answering emails or phone calls, that’s not what we hired them to do. So it again, it’s “as possible.” So we’re trying to make sure that we are providing whatever information we possibly can. Again, none of this is saying that we’re shutting the media out. None of this is saying, you know, contrary to some things that I’ve heard, that people think all of a sudden we’re not doing press conferences or we’re not doing interviews, that’s simply not the case. The main thing that we’re looking at doing is to make sure we’re using our people the best way that they possibly can be used, but also, that information that’s being requested is to be able to say, hey, rather than making that phone call to us and having us look this information up, here’s access to our website, or social media accounts, or our CMPD app, and this is where you can find that information. So the hope is those phone calls don’t even have to come to us in the first place.

But sometimes that information that we’re seeking isn’t available on the app or on your website. And there are a couple of examples that I just kind of want to talk through with you.

After the 2020 protests that happened in the city, we submitted a records request. My colleague Joe Bruno asked specifically about the purchase of chemical agents within a period of time. It took him two years to get a response and the response was one word. Is that prompt?

Jennings: It’s not prompt. I don’t know the specifics of that, so I can’t really speak on that in general. But what I can tell you is that there are a lot of times that things are not public record for the public, such as means and methods are concerned. So we wouldn’t provide you with full details of how much equipment we have or how many personnel that we have for a specific event.

So there are certain things that we don’t divulge and that’s simply for the safety of our officers and, and also for our means and methods or tactics when we are dealing with situations that are very dangerous and that’s part of it. So I don’t know the specifics about that two-year request, and it’s something that we can certainly look into.

I know you’re familiar with the incident in July with the driver who was accused of stealing multiple cars and driving erratically all over the city. Many of our viewers, as you can imagine in that two-hour timeframe we were covering it live on the air, were asking a lot of questions about CMPs policy and why there wasn’t an effort to stop the driver sooner. CMPD did hold a news conference but it was several hours after the initial incident and ultimately the chase that ended with him crashing into another vehicle. Why not be more proactive in addressing the community after such a widespread and concerning event?

Jennings: Well, I think that as we were going through this was something that was brought to our attention because it wasn’t a car chase initially, it did end in a vehicle Chase. But our policy is pretty specific about when we can and cannot chase in that particular incident. I’ll remind people that once the helicopter is over top, even if it was a car chase, that we back off. Generally, those individuals that are driving, they slow their driving down, they change their behavior as far as the vehicle is concerned. This was a rare incident in my entire career that I’ve never seen someone that continued to drive a radically like this. But at the same time had we been chasing that vehicle and had the same result, or now you have CMPD cars that are also driving erratically that have put people in danger as well. This person obviously was not going to stop because a police car decides to put the blue lights behind them and try and stop them. He was showing that regularly.

So with that, the case that we were talking about here was something that once we started seeing the media coverage on it, and once we started realizing that this was going on way, way too long, way further than what we would have expected it to, I think our public information office was putting out information as soon as they could get it and putting that information out for the public. And it was obviously a dangerous situation but I think the story with this case like that is not the police. The story is that this guy put so many people in danger and it’s a shame that he was driving erratically putting those people in danger and we didn’t want to escalate that danger as well as the officer so we have a tough decision to make and we have to be able to make that on the fly when these incidents are happening.

In June, I know you’re aware that one of your officers was shot responding to the Blind Pig incident happening there and NoDa neighbors had contacted Channel Nine in the midst of all of that, asking if there was a shooting the CMPD app said an aggravated assault, MEDIC listed a vehicle wreck, and so we were reaching out multiple trying times trying to get clarity. And then after a news conference and one of my colleagues was pressing for more information and was told by someone in the Public Affairs Office here at CMPD that the department wouldn’t be answering questions related to “small potatoes” or “news that was small potatoes.” So I guess the question is, how transparent is it for the department to then determine what is and is not a news story and what topics may be answered questions may be answered or are not?

Jennings: I don’t think that’s for us to determine what is and what isn’t a new story. I think that when you talk about transparency, that information should be available. It should be out there. I know the case you’re talking about but specific comments and things that were made, I am not, this is the first time hearing that. But what I can tell you is particularly when we have an officer-involved shooting, I think we’re putting out that information as quickly as we get it. We’re doing stand-up press conferences at all of these were made available to the media on the scene at these locations. But you also have to understand that as these investigations are unwinding, in order for us to put out accurate information we also have to confirm some of the information that we’re getting. There’s oftentimes when these cases are so so scattered that we might have information on one hand, but then as you go through the investigation, it’s determined that it’s totally another direction. You know, when I make those phone calls to our city manager or to any of the public activists that I reach out to in these, I always caveat it by: things could change as we look into it, and they often do. And so for us to continue to be accurate, sometimes it takes time for us to even uncover what we’re even going to say to the media before we say.

Well, I understand the conclusion of an investigation may take some time but when there’s an urgent police response in a neighborhood and it may take hours for us to gather information from CMPD. Do you think that’s good enough?

Jennings: No, I think that information should be made available as soon as we can put it out there. If that takes hours, then there should be an explanation for that. But I do think that we are trying to push information out as soon as we can. I know that when I go out to scenes, oftentimes that information has already begun. The flow of information as we can piece it together, things that we can factually say. We’re going to put it out there through our social media accounts in anything else that we’re able to. So the biggest thing is that at some point when these major cases occur, we’re going to do a stand-up and we’re going to have that conversation with all the media and try to answer whatever questions that we can.

News coverage and just life in general, it’s 24/7 -- things happen at all hours of the day. But our ability to communicate with CMPD has changed in terms of more limitations of the timeframe in which we have to ask questions, and how frequently we’ll be given responses to. So when breaking news in public safety happens 24/7, is it of the public interest to only periodically?

Jennings: Yeah, let me ask this question. We have limited resources, the expectation to answer 150 emails and phone calls with just a couple of people that we have hired. I mean, there’s there very few options that we have. And as that becomes more and more prevalent throughout Charlotte-Mecklenburg we have to really step back and take a look at how are we going to be the most effective and efficient agency that we possibly can. What I can tell you is that we can’t continue at the pace that we’re doing and our public information office has been frantically trying to make sure that we’re as responsive as possible, but they’re not able to keep that up. And if I want to keep people working and I want to keep them responsive, then we have to be able to look at alternative ways to do that.

You mentioned using your own social media accounts as a way to push information out there. With your department, what percentage of the budget is assigned to creation of CMPD’s own content on social media?

Jennings: I don’t have a specific percentage of the budget for that. But our public information office, they do have a budget just like any other divisions within our agency, and they stay within those budgets. So what they’re able to do is not just putting out information and social media information, but also marketing for CMPD. We have a huge deficit, like I mentioned earlier, in our recruiting, so we have to be able to how do we brand CMPD in a positive light? And then how do we get people to be interested in careers with our job so that they do fill out applications? And we want to make sure that our department is the selected department when someone’s interested in becoming a police officer?

Well, we’ve also heard concerns from the [Fraternal Order of Police that they worry that this new approach could impact their ability or work that they’ve been doing for the past few years to build trust in the community. What would you say to your fellow officers?

Jennings: Well, I think that we have to look at the big picture here. And I think that the misconception is that we’re shutting the media out, is something that’s simply not true and what we’re trying to just realign some things on how we can better serve not just the media, but serve better serve the public and continue to be transparent. It’s not a saying that we’re not going to answer questions. We’re not going to not fill public records requests. It’s us saying how can we make that information more accessible and more readily available without having to have someone sitting at a computer or sitting by phone, taking calls and answering emails?

And lastly, Mayor Lyles had said that she would like to discuss this and potentially revisit it if it’s not working. How will you measure if this new strategy is working? And would you be open to changing it?

Jennings: Well, I think we’re always open to changing anything. We’ve been looking at our record within our department, you know, we changed over 37 policies in the last two or three years. We’ve, looked at better practices, best practices throughout our agency. So certainly, we’re always looking at that. We’re always trying to make sure that we’re being the best that we can possibly be within our agency. And if it turns out if we need this drop back and take another look, we’re going to do that. But also, we have to look at what are we able to do with the personnel that we have? We simply cannot continue on the path that we’re on right now with the amount of emails and the demands that come in and the deadlines that are placed upon our people to get information back. We can’t continue that, and whether it’s working or not, I don’t know what an alternative answer would be. We can’t go back to when we were doing it, because it wasn’t effective either, because it was at the same time as we’re trying to fulfill those requests, we are getting pushback in some anger from some of the media because we’re not meeting the deadlines.

Are you surprised that there’s been so many calls for more transparency?

Jennings: It’s not more transparency. It’s questions in inquiries about things that the media is wanting to run their story. So you say this transparency. It’s some things that we simply can’t keep creating a call center for the media. We just can’t do it. I mean, I’d love to be able to have a staff of 15 people that sits down there and answers your phone calls and answers your emails. It’s just not possible. It’s not feasible.

(WATCH BELOW: Some of the most intense moments during the hours-long high-speed chase through Charlotte)

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