Opinion: What Kerr Putney Knows

The CMPD chief gets real in shootings' aftermath
City of Charlotte/YouTube screencap
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney during a news conference Friday at Belmont Regional Center in Charlotte.

The video below (from WBTV) is going viral and should. It’s Kerr Putney, chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department—our police chief. He is an American black man. He is a cop. When police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul, and when an Army veteran shot and killed five police officers in Dallas, the chief was in a position to feel all of it personally, because, unlike most of the rest of us, he’s lived the lives of both sets of victims.

The violence of this week presents everyone with a hell of a challenge—to direct our grief and outrage outward, to make our communities kinder and more understanding places. But it compels us to look inward, too. The Dallas shootings in particular numbed me. Putting events into context is part of my job. Nothing about a sniper wiping out five police officers in the downtown of a major American city, during an otherwise peaceful protest over other officers’ brutality, fit into any context I could conceive. So I said nothing as a way of saying something.

Now I understand a little better why. It wasn’t my place. In all likelihood, I will never face the possibility of a cop shooting me to death during a traffic stop. Why? I’m a middle-aged, middle-class (culturally, though not financially) white guy. That’s reality. I will never know what it’s like to pull on a police officer’s uniform and make peace, every day or night, with the distinct possibility that I might not survive the shift. That’s reality, too.

We talk a lot about “solutions” at times like this, as if human society were a machine that an overhaul or replacement of parts could repair. It’s not. We’re a violent species, always have been. “Evil,” however you choose to define it, is a given.

But I know this: Nothing defuses it quite like understanding, person to person, as when a cop sees people on his beat not as constituent parts of a community but as Doug and LaTasha and Joaquin, and those people see a man or woman in blue not as the business end of an institution but as Officer Nelson and Officer Humphrey. As Putney says, CMPD has taken steps lately to make that understanding easier, and—more important—knows it has more work to do. That work is more likely to achieve real change when the man at the top doesn’t just comprehend the challenge but knows it because he’s lived it.