Stepping Back To Assess the Danquirs Franklin Case
Analysis: Where we stand with another troubling police shooting
Marshall Park on Tuesday evening, after Charlotte-Mecklenburg released the body-worn camera footage from the March 25 police shooting of Danquirs Franklin.
“I saw the video just one time,” a woman named Deirdre Moss said Tuesday evening at East Stonewall AME Zion Church, about a mile up Beatties Ford Road from where a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Danquirs Franklin last month. “I didn’t want to look at it again.”
Moss and about 100 others in the church had come to a community conversation with Chief Kerr Putney, which the mayor, city manager, and five City Council members attended, one day after CMPD released footage from the body-worn camera of Officer Wende Kerl, who had shot Franklin twice in a Burger King parking lot on the morning of March 25.
Moss and nearly everyone in the room had seen the video by Tuesday, and she told Putney she didn’t understand why Kerl shot Franklin, 27, after it appeared he had reached into a pocket of his sweatshirt, pulled out a gun, and begun to place it on the ground—in other words, complied with roughly 20 commands from Kerl and another officer to do just that. So, Moss said, if he complies, he gets shot. If he doesn’t comply, he gets shot. “My question is,” she asked, “when can a person in that situation make the right movement that won’t get them killed?”
People at the session, the latest in a series called “Let’s Talk,” spoke passionately to the chief about their confusion, disbelief, and, above all, fear. The Burger King and church are in a part of Charlotte a few miles north of uptown that’s populated mostly by African-Americans, and resident after resident poured out their feelings about what they perceive as a mortal police threat to all of them.
Moss’ question didn’t directly address race. It did burrow down to actions in given situations, and the complicated interplay of perception, incomplete information, hindsight, communication, and intent (or lack of it) that characterize and complicate so many citizen encounters with law enforcement. As Putney answered Moss’ question, the video screen above him displayed a slide that read: “Engagement Best Practices. Cooperate. Communicate. De-escalate.”
“Ideally, what happens is, ‘Show me your hands,’” said Putney, who emphasized that he was speaking generally and not about the Franklin shooting. He raised his arms and splayed his hands out, palms facing forward, and kept them there as he spoke. He adopted the roles of cop and citizen in a model exchange.
“You got a gun?”
“And then we follow instructions.” He wiggled the thumb and index finger of his left hand. “Pointer finger, thumb, or prone out, right?”—meaning on the ground, face down, arms extended and hands empty. “We cuff you, we get the weapon. That is how it should happen.”
Since March 25, and especially since the release of the video Monday, critics of CMPD and observers in general have taken issue with they they saw as an absence of de-escalation, which Putney and other CMPD officials have stressed and said they’ve trained officers for in recent years. So where was the de-escalation with Danquirs Franklin?
Part of the answer, Putney said, is that the responsibility for de-escalation doesn’t rest solely on police officers. People could argue forever whether that should or shouldn’t be the case, or how much responsibility each party bears; it’s reasonable to expect an officer, as a trained and armed agent of a city government, to shoulder most of it. But citizens, especially armed ones in an open-carry state, have a part to play as well in demonstrating they don’t pose a threat of death or serious injury—the legal baseline for police use of force.
Otherwise, cops operate on assumption and perception in potentially life-or-death situations in which they have to make decisions in fractions of seconds, and those—as we’ve seen over the years from the police shooting deaths of every unarmed black person from Tamir Rice in Cleveland to Stephon Clark in Sacramento—can be tragically wrong. “If there’s no communication and cooperation, de-escalation is much more difficult. That’s the point,” Putney told Moss. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.”
It might help to step back and assess where we stand now in the Franklin shooting—exactly what happened when, what’s known, what isn’t—and to prepare for the strong likelihood that District Attorney Spencer Merriweather will eventually conclude that Kerl’s actions March 25 fell within the bounds of the law. Whether it was morally or ethically right is, of course, another matter, and CMPD, like law enforcement agencies throughout the country, wrestle with questions about what that higher standard ought to be and how to achieve it. (CMPD Attorney Mark Newbold told the crowd as much Tuesday night, as he has at other Let’s Talk sessions.)
The legal standard is, on its face, clear, established by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago in a case that began in Charlotte: Graham vs. Connor. Law enforcement officers can legally use lethal force when they reasonably perceive an imminent threat of death or serious injury to themselves or others, and at the moment of use of force, not with what the court referred to as “the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” That means the relevant point, in determining whether an officer’s use of deadly force was legal, isn’t what may become evident in the moments or hours or weeks afterward; it’s what the officer could have reasonably assumed at that moment.
So what would Kerl have known when she pulled into the Burger King parking lot that morning? The first of two 911 calls had come in at exactly 9 a.m. A woman tells the dispatcher that a customer went behind the counter “to frighten an employee,” and that she thinks the man has gone behind the building. Then her voice rises. “He’s got a gun,” she says four times. Then she says he’s on foot and in the building. The dispatcher replies, “Police will be en route as soon as possible.”
Another dispatcher fielded the second 911 call at 9:01. A woman gasps for breath and says, “‘Yes, Burger King on Beatties Ford Road. Somebody ran up to my car, looked like he was pulling out a gun. Black male, gray sweatpants, short haircut. I saw everybody running ... He was going into his pants, I saw some of the workers coming out, I saw a worker run out. I was waiting to get my food, and he stopped right in front of my car, and he reached into his sweatpants …” She catches her breath. “Oh, my God. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.”
Kerl pulls in at just before 9:05, steps out of her car, and, gun drawn, yells twice in a voice loud enough to distort the recording: “Let me see your hands!” This is the only time when she issues that particular command. All the others, from her and from Officer Larry Deal, are variations of, “Drop the gun.” Franklin may not have heard the command to show his hands. He may have been confused by the commands to drop the gun if, as the video suggests, he wasn’t holding the gun. We don’t know. But, from the perspective of Kerl’s body-worn camera, we can see that his hands are hidden, positioned between his legs as he squats next to the passenger’s side of a car. From that view, you can’t tell whether he’s holding anything.
From the time Kerl yells, “Let me see your hands!” to her two shots that killed Franklin, 40 seconds elapse. During that time, Franklin doesn’t move from his squatting position. He stares down, then ahead. He faces the car—which means Kerl can see his left side but not his right. He says only, “I heard you the first time,” 30 seconds in, but otherwise does nothing until, at 37 seconds, the camera captures Franklin’s left hand. He reaches over to his right side with his left hand and produces something; it’s not clear what.
Then, for the first time in the video, you can see his right hand, holding the barrel of what looks like a revolver. He lifts it up, then away from his body, then down. Franklin has just begun to lower his right hand when Kerl fires the first shot. Three seconds pass from the first appearance of either of Franklin’s hands to the latter of the two shots. “You told me to …,” Franklin says—a dying utterance that’s since become a hashtag—and slumps against the open car door. The video cuts off abruptly a few seconds after Kerl, having moved to where Franklin has fallen, picks up the gun.
We should also take stock of what remains unknown, and unknowable. A man was in the passenger’s seat of the car, next to Franklin, and at least one family member of Franklin’s claims he was the general manager of the Burger King and that Franklin was praying with him when police arrived. Was he? Did Kerl think Franklin was holding the man hostage? What did she think? What was Franklin thinking? Why didn’t Franklin show his hands or tell police he had a gun, and where it was? Why did Kerl get so close? Why didn’t she repeat her initial command to “Let me see your hands?” Exactly what was Franklin doing with a gun at a Burger King at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning?
We’ll learn some answers from Merriweather’s office, presumably. The rest, regarding Franklin’s state of mind, we most likely will never know.
And that, to any person of sound mind and soul who considers the case and watches the video, resonates as unacceptable, as wrong on some deep, instinctive level. If you’re not a sadist or white supremacist—and, as you might expect, a number of them infested the comments section under the CMPD video on YouTube—you can’t watch Danquirs Franklin get shot to death without reacting the way human beings ought to, with revulsion. “It made me sick to my stomach,” Putney said Tuesday night, and several of the people at the church Tuesday expressed something similar. And there’s no dodging the race factor, too, American law enforcement’s outrageous history of discrimination and violence toward people of color and contempt for their lives and property. On top of all that, the six-foot-four, basketball-playing Franklin, the co-author of a book about the value of mentoring black boys, happened to be all of what research has shown to be most instinctively threatening to police officers: young, black, male, and tall.
It’s an awful thing all the way around, something worth weeping over, and that’s perhaps what has drawn out more sorrow from Charlotte than outrage. Be honest—you thought, as I did, that the city might experience Keith Lamont Scott, Part Two, from the death of Danquirs Franklin. That it didn’t might stem from a less oblivious response from city and CMPD officials, who at least have shown their faces in public this time. But a colleague I spoke with outside the church Tuesday had another theory: “We’re an exhausted nation,” she said. You can’t argue with that, even as all of us have to accept the hard reality of resolutions that satisfy nobody and nothing, and the necessity of all the work that remains to be done.