Sep 1, 2022 - News

New Charlotte police protocol may limit media access

Former CMPD police chief Kerr Putney addresses the media following the 2016 protests in Charlotte. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

At a time of national cries for transparency, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is rolling out plans to reduce questions and interactions with local media.

Why it matters: The police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte in 2016 ignited a community-wide call for accountability in law enforcement here. The murder of George Floyd in 2020, and demonstrations that followed, accelerated these demands nationwide.

Driving the news: Chief Johnny Jennings tells Axios the department is shifting its focus to fulfill public records requests, which they are legally required to do. Jennings told Axios this is a way to improve efficiency, and he does not think it limits media access.

  • “I know of other agencies across the country that have basically shut the media out,” Jennings said. “And they don’t give interviews. They don’t give press conferences. They put their own stuff out, and the media can pick from that. And that’s one thing that I was adamant that we’re not going to do.”

Details: Other CMPD changes include:

  • CMPD will grant interview requests on a case-by-case basis. Jennings says this has always been department policy.
  • Press conferences will be less frequent (CMPD originally set up scheduled weekly press briefings), and “as needed,” Jennings said on WFAE Wednesday.
  • CMPD also reorganized its public affairs office with a civilian team, returning sworn-in officers who were working comms to patrol, in order to alleviate the officer shortage it faces. The department has more than 300 officer vacancies.

Yes, but: Robert Dawkins, political director for Action NC who works on police accountability and safety, expressed concern about the new media protocol. He says it is already difficult to obtain information like body camera footage as a citizen, and news reports are the main way his group knows whether to investigate something.

  • “Without that, it limits the transparency specifically for groups that are looking to see how policy decisions are made and evaluating how policy decisions are working,” he says.

State of play: The number of media requests has become demanding for the department, Jennings tells Axios. He estimates that requests for information are “in excess of 140, 150 times a day.”

  • “Our public information office has almost turned into a call center,” he says. “There’s just no way that we can sustain that. We don’t have the manpower to simply continue to just answer calls and emails.”
  • He also said he wants CMPD to be able to “put our narrative out” because some reports shine a bad light on the department.

Lt. Stephen Fischbach, who is leaving the public affairs office for a promotion, told Axios on a recent phone call that media partners are seeking public records out of mere curiosity, and that bogs down the system.

  • Of note: No one needs to provide a reason for requesting public documents under the law.

Meanwhile, over just the past several days, CMPD dealt with the drive-by-shooting of a 4-year-old boy in southeast Charlotte, investigated a homicide in southwest Charlotte and arrested a 17-year-old suspect in a homicide investigation.

What they’re saying: City Council member Braxton Winston says he wants the city to increase its communication. He said the weekly press conferences were an intentional shift to be more transparent and is concerned they are going away.

“We’re a growing city. Part of the growing pains is dealing with the need for increased communications,” he says.

Between the lines: CMPD says it is focusing on filling records requests, but its current records system is backlogged.

  • Axios has several pending records requests, including one for the data behind CMPD’s mid-year crime statistics, which the department presented to the public in July. We have yet to receive a response.

What’s next: The hope is that the redesign will improve expediency at filling requests, Fischbach told Axios.

By the numbers: CMPD runs on a $300-plus million budget, which is the largest slice of the city’s budget at 40%.

The bottom line: We can’t force police to be transparent. Law enforcement agencies are only subject to public record laws, and even then, there’s no definitive timeline for supplying that information.

Any time information is flowing slower rather than quicker is cause for concern, says Brooks Fuller, the director of NC Open Government Coalition.

  • “We rely on the good faith of elected and appointed leaders to keep the public informed, and the primary way they do that is through press conferences with news organizations,” Fuller said. “We hope constantly that they’ll keep up their end of the bargain as public servants.”

The story behind the story

In mid-August, Axios’ Alexandria Sands asked CMPD for the best phone number to reach the communications team.

  • Turns out, there isn’t one anymore. Instead, journalists are directed to communicate through a general email address.

Axios was invited to a meeting Tuesday at police headquarters to learn more about changes that were being made to the media policy. After we sat down and started recording, the CMPD public affairs team asked that the conversation be off the record. We asked for it to be on the record but CMPD’s public affairs office told us we would receive a statement via email.

  • We never received the statement from the public affairs team. We were told they were still clearing “verbiage with legal.”

Yes, but: On Wednesday afternoon Chief Jennings took a call from Axios’ Danielle Chemtob and confirmed some of the off-the-record details from Tuesday’s meeting. He explained what happened with the change in policy and gave some of the comments and context above.

  • Shortly after, Amanda Aycock and Sandy Vastola from the public affairs office called Danielle and told her not to directly call the chief anymore, and to go through their office.
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