Charlotte chief says trust in police is the worst he’s ever seen. But he has a plan.

Michael Gordon, Ames Alexander
·9 min read

First, the good news: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings says the murder conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd could help rebuild trust between the public and police, even in Charlotte.

Now the bad: Jennings, a law enforcement veteran of nearly three decades, says the current level of distrust nationally between police and the public, especially in Black communities, is the highest he’s ever seen.

So high that Jennings and his department will be trying something radically new.

Soon, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officers will begin treating residents with whom they interact, not solely as victims, suspects or “perps,” but as customers.

“I don’t want people to walk away from us with a bad feeling,” Jennings told the Observer in an interview this week.

“Even if we are dealing with a bad incident, it does not have to be a bad experience dealing with the officers.”

In a Charlotte divided over its police department, new chief says his job is to listen

On a general level, the approach sounds like the latest iteration of community policing. But Jennings is pushing to do more.

CMPD has hired The DiJulius Group, a national consulting firm, to train its 2,300 employees in the fine points of the firm’s “Customer Service Revolution.” The department will pay about $60,000, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano says.

The company, with a high-end client list that includes Disney, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton and Chick-fil-A, has never worked with a police department before, Jennings said. As a result, the course of study for CMPD is still being developed, with the full program scheduled to go public in late summer.

The DiJulius Group, according to Tufano, declined an Observer interview request Thursday.

In a video posted on the company’s website, founder John DiJulius talks about the importance of companies having a stated “customer service vision” that is simple and concise enough for employees to understand and act upon.

In the case of former company client Starbucks, the new vision was this: “We create inspired moments in each customer’s day.”

Implict in that, DiJulius says in the video, was an emphasis on Starbucks workers better understanding “a day in the life of a customer” to create greater employee empathy and compassion for the people they serve.

Starbucks’ employees, according to DiJulius, were taught to connect with customers, anticipate their needs, personalize the exchange and own the outcome.

How that training translates in the world of cops remains to be seen. Baristas, after all, don’t carry guns.

CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings says his department will undergo customer-service training in hopes of improving frayed community trust in his officers.
CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings says his department will undergo customer-service training in hopes of improving frayed community trust in his officers.

Yet, Jennings, a career-long CMPD officer whose promotion to chief came less than a week before protests over Floyd’s death began sweeping the country last summer, sees parallels.

For starters, he points to the importance of officers to treat people well and understand the communities they serve.

Moreover, a culture change to a less confrontational style of policing appears to be consistent with policy reforms CMPD already has put in place.

“In dealing with the public, we must be cordial even if it’s not reciprocated,” Jennings said. “Our officers must always be professional and treat people with respect.”

Reaction to the new plan

Early reaction to CMPD’s upcoming customer-service training is mixed.

City Councilman Braxton Winston called the approach “a waste of money.”

He believes Charlotte would be better served by replacing CMPD with an agency of unarmed investigative officers who rely on communication skills, not force, to resolve conflicts.

“I don’t believe having armed sentries patrol our neighborhoods and hallways and homes makes us safer. It makes it a more dangerous place to live,” said Winston, whose political career roots back to the 2016 protests following CMPD’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

“We can’t put lipstick on a pig,” he said.

However, Tonya Jameson, chair of the city’s Citizens Review Board, which hears complaints against the police, applauded CMPD’s turn toward service with more of a smile.

“My hope is it’s going to improve the way police interact with the public, so a routine interaction doesn’t escalate into something that’s fatal,” said Jameson, a former Observer reporter.

“I think it’s more important than having good customer service with Amazon. Because that interaction (with police) can cost someone their life. Communication’s just critical.”

Jameson experienced that firsthand. In 2017, she was held at gunpoint by a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee, while she was changing a license plate on a newly purchased SUV.

The officer thought she was trying to steal the car, she said.

Distrust in police and vice versa

Meanwhile, the nation continues to be gripped by the fatal shootings of Black people by police. Two such killings occurred after the Chauvin verdict on Tuesday, including one in the eastern North Carolina town of Elizabeth City.

Jennings said something has to change in the way police and the public treat each other.

“All you have to do is turn on the TV or read the newspaper,” he responded. “Trust is at a very low level, the lowest I’ve seen in my 29-year career.”

Minutes after the interview, Tufano called a reporter to say Jennings was talking about the erosion of trust nationally, not in Charlotte.

But veteran Charlotte attorney George Laughrun, who frequently represents police in court and department matters, said Charlotte is not excluded. He said morale at CMPD, as it is at police departments around the country, is “very low.”

One reason: Even everyday interactions such as traffic stops carry far more tension, given the outcry over the highly publicized deaths of Floyd and others and the hands of police.

“Both sides are waiting for things to escalate,” Laughrun said. “The public doesn’t trust police officers now. Everybody is looking for a ‘gotcha moment.’ There’s the perception that they’re all bad and that’s just not true.”

The erosion of public trust in the men and women they hire to protect and serve is a national phenomenon. A 2020 poll by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, found “cratering trust in the American police as an institution” on the heels of Floyd’s death last Memorial Day, when Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes even after Floyd had been handcuffed and subdued.

In that poll, 37% of all voters — and 64% of Black voters — said the recent events had made them “less likely to trust police.”

On Friday, a new Washington Post-ABC poll found that 6 in 10 Americans say the country should do more to hold police accountable for mistreating Black people, despite how those measures interfere with how officers do their jobs.

The level of concern represents a slight drop from the height of the Floyd protests last summer. But it remains at its highest level since 1988, The Post reported.

One likely factor: The relationship between police and the public remains violent.

Since 2015, when The Post and others began accumulating the first credible tracking of police use of violence, about 1,000 Americans have been shot and killed annually by on-duty officers.

“All this talk of reforms and we’re still seeing the exact number of shootings. Things are not getting better,” said Bowling Green State University political scientist Philip Stinson, a former cop and an expert in police use of force.

Not all the shootings have been controversial. Yet the number of police prosecutions remains fractionally low.

Since 2005, only 140 officers have been arrested for murder or manslaughter in connection with on-duty killings. Of those cases, only 44 were convicted, often for lesser crimes, Stinson said.

‘Reasonable’ use of force? How a Charlotte case could influence jury in Chauvin trial

Part of that is due to what critics describe as police-friendly laws making convictions difficult if not impossible in many cases.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg had 30 fatal police shootings since 2005, which gives it a smaller rate than most U.S. cities of similar size.

However, only one police officer had been accused of an on-duty shooting crime in the past 40 years. In 2013, Officer Randall Kerrick was charged with manslaughter after shooting Jonathan Ferrell 10 times. His 2015 trial ended with a hung jury, and the charge was eventually dropped.

In such controversial recent police shootings as Keith Lamont Scott, Ruben Galindo and Danquirs Franklin, the Mecklenburg County district attorney’s office did not bring charges after deciding that under existing laws the chances of a conviction were slight.

While not referring to the CMPD shooting cases, Jennings acknowledged the damage to police trust and credibility when “the whole world is watching ... these incidents have happened and officers have not been held accountable.”

CMPD post-George Floyd

In a page straight out of the customer service training for Starbucks, Jennings said CMPD will own its interactions with the public, which total about 600,000 a year.

‘Everything felt like it was on fire.’ Floyd marchers say they walked into police ambush

When mistakes occur — and no culture change or policy revision stop them, Jennings said — CMPD will acknowledge them.

That enables the public to see that “We’re not trying to cover up anything or hide anything when officers’ actions are out of line,” he said.

Jennings pointed to the June police ambush of Floyd protesters on Fourth Street, which led to CMPD banning the use of chemical munitions against the public.

CMPD changes chemical munitions policy following outcry over protest incident

He also referred to the in-custody death of Harold Easter, which led to the resignations of five CMPD officers.

Jennings said the Floyd incident led to Charlotte police expanding the department’s policy on banned chokeholds to include any tactics that threaten to stop the flow of blood.

DA rebukes CMPD in death of Harold Easter, but will not bring charges against cops

CMPD also now requires officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using an improper tactic that could cause harm.

Post-Floyd, CMPD has also adopted the “8 Can’t Wait” package, which emphasizes de-escalation and requires officers to exhaust all alternatives before firing their guns, among other reforms.

Veteran Charlotte activist Robert Dawkins said while Jennings and CMPD have not gone as far as he’d like on some fronts, the chief has shown a willingness to listen.

“He’ll sit down, look at something and maybe put something in place,” said Dawkins, political director of Action NC.

“Maybe not all of the time, but at least he’s willing to entertain the idea.”

City Council member Larken Egleston, who chairs the council’s Safe Communities committee, said he’s on board with the customer-service approach.

“I’m in favor — in all parts of government, and certainly within CMPD — of trying new things. I think it’s a financial risk worth taking to try some new approaches,” he said, particularly when Jennings has displayed an “unwavering willingness to be self-critical and be self-improving.”

Jennings said the transition to a customer-driven CMPD is his most important change yet, one he hopes can depressurize a fraying relationship.

Now he needs to sell it to all sides.

Laughrun, the police attorney, said he sees value in a return to basic civility between police and the public. But he anticipates Jennings will receive some pushback from his rank-and-file, given the training in de-escalation and other policy changes the department has recently undergone.

“I think the officers are probably having sensory overload,” he said.

“At some point, you have to be out on the street and not in a classroom.”