By Mitch Weiss
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hours after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer fatally shot an unarmed man, the department made a rare move: It charged the officer with voluntary manslaughter.
Most police departments, including Charlotte, usually take weeks — sometimes months — to complete an investigation of a police shooting. But the decision to quickly charge Randall Kerrick is now drawing sharp criticism from police groups and being followed closely by law enforcement departments across the country.
Critics call the department's move a rush to judgment and say it will have a chilling effect on officers in the field.
"What it does is it shakes their confidence because, like it or not, most cops like to think their department has their back," Randy Hagler, president of the North Carolina Fraternal Order of Police, told The Associated Press. "That's not to say the department is going to cover anything up. They just want the department to give them a fair shake. That's all we ask for. And officers in our community don't necessarily all feel that way."
Ken Trelka, police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, said he's been following the case and warned that filing charges quickly could put officers at risk.
"My concern is we're going to have an officer — any officer someplace in the country — hesitate when they are justified in taking action and lose their life," he said.
Police shootings are generally high-profile stories in local communities. And when race is involved they often attract national attention. In Charlotte, the officer charged in the shooting is white; Jonathan Ferrell, the man who was shot and a former Florida A&M football player, is black.
Ferrell's encounter with police was set in motion at 2:30 a.m. Sept. 14, when his car ran off the entrance road to a suburban neighborhood about 15 miles from downtown Charlotte. After crashing his car into trees, Ferrell kicked out the back window and headed up a hill to the first cluster of houses he could see.
Police said Ferrell knocked on a door seeking help. The woman inside called 911, thinking he was trying to break into her home.
Kerrick and two other officers responded to the call. They found Ferrell on a road that leads only to the neighborhood's pool. Ferrell ran toward the officers, who tried to stop him with a Taser. Police said he continued to run toward them and Kerrick fired 12 shots, hitting Ferrell with all but two. Ferrell died at the scene.
At first, Kerrick — who has been with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police since April 2011 — and the two other officers at the scene were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation probe into the shooting.
But later that day, Kerrick, 27, was charged with voluntary manslaughter and released on $50,000 bond.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe said that while Ferrell did advance on Kerrick, the shooting was excessive. Monroe said the department's investigation showed the officer didn't have a lawful right to discharge his weapon during this encounter.
Kerrick's attorneys said the shooting was justified because Ferrell didn't obey verbal commands to stop. But the attorney for Ferrell's family said the shots were fired in such close proximity that they never gave Ferrell a chance to respond.
Civil rights leader have praised the police for quickly filing charges. Ferrell's family said the 24-year-old moved to Charlotte about a year ago to be with his fiancee and was working two jobs. He wanted to go back to school to be an automotive engineer, they said. He had no criminal record.
The North Carolina attorney general's office is handling the case.
Experts say it usually takes weeks or longer for agencies to complete investigations into a police shooting and decide whether to file charges. Investigators usually give officers involved time before interviewing them at length so they can decompress and process information.
But that didn't happen with Kerrick.
"People are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and police officers are no exception. You don't check your civil rights at the station house door," said James Pasco Jr., national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
He said most departments take their time with investigations because they want to be thorough.
"They go very carefully. One thing to remember in the case of a shooting, generally speaking, the most accurate information will come out over a period of time," Pasco said. "Another thing is that participants in a shooting - whether they were the shooter, whether they were shot or whether they were just there — all tend to suffer to a degree from post-traumatic shock for at least a short period of time. And that's why the best and most accurate information is usually gathered from these folks 48 to 72 hours after the event."
Hagler, who worked more than 30 years for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, agreed, saying investigators need time to interview witnesses and examine evidence. He said investigators have to consider in this case that at least one other officer at the scene believed there was a threat, which is why he used his Taser on Ferrell.
In the wake of the 2012 Trayvon Martin case — in which the unarmed teenager was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch leader, who was later acquitted — some police departments may be feeling pressure. Sanford, Fla., police were accused of not investigating Martin's case quickly.
But Lance LoRusso, an attorney and former police officer in Georgia, said investigators still need to take their time.
"They need to take a step back because it's too important - too important to the family to get it right the first time. It's too important to the officers to get it right the first time," he said.
Trelka said investigations have to be "slow and methodical."
"This needs to go through its entire process, and maybe the officer is ultimately convicted," he said. "However, it's just unprecedented that an officer is charged this rapidly under these circumstances. It confounds me."
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press