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SBI investigating Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police custody death
Family demanded probe of 'medical emergency'
 
Published Saturday, February 1, 2020 3:35 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

PHOTO | HERBERT L. WHITE
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney (left) and Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather take reporters' questions during a Friday press conference at CMPD headquarters. Putney and Merriweather announced the State Bureau of Investigation is launching a probe into the death of Harold Easter, 41, who died on Jan. 26, three days after losing consciousness in police custody.

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Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather has turned the case of a Charlotte man who died in police custody over to the State Bureau of Investigation.

Harold Easter, 41, died Jan. 26, three days after suffering what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney described as a “medical emergency” at the Beatties Ford Road station. Easter was arrested Jan. 23 and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana after police said they observed a suspected a drug deal near Whisnant and Bourbon streets.

Officers administered first aid after Easter lost consciousness and summoned an ambulance to rush him to a nearby hospital. Putney declined to give additional details of Easter’s ailment or the officers’ response, citing the investigations. He acknowledged physical force wasn’t used to subdue Easter.

“This is not easy. It never is,” Putney said at a Friday press conference to announce the SBI’s involvement. “I wish I could tell you this is going to be a pristine type of situation, but it’s not. No loss of life is easy to watch.”

Officers Brentley Vinson, Michael Benfield, Michael Joseph and Shon Sheffield as well as Sgt. Nicholas Vincent, were placed on administrative leave during the internal investigation, which the department says is standard procedure. Vinson is the officer who shot and killed Keith Scott in a 2016 confrontation that sparked a series of uprisings across Charlotte over several days and left one person dead. Vinson was cleared of wrongdoing by CMPD and the District Attorney’s office.

CMPD’s Internal Affairs unit launched an investigation of the incident as is customary in such incidents, but Easter’s family demanded an independent probe, as is their right under state law. SBI was called in after conversations between Putney, Merriweather and Easter’s family. When the state probe – which includes interviewing the officers involved in Easter’s custody and establishing a timeline of events – is concluded, the finding will be turned over to Merriweather, who will decide whether to file criminal charges.

“Both the chief and myself find ourselves in roles, as in any public servant’s, to make sure the work you do has the public’s confidence,” Merriweather said. “If there are certain procedural things that we can do differently to make sure that confidence is established and that trust is maintained, we intend to do it.”

The relationship between CMPD and civilians – especially African Americans – has long been strained. A series of deadly shootings in the mid-1990s drew protests and lawsuits, but the scrutiny has increased since the 2016 Vinson-Scott confrontation, prompting city leaders to push for change.

Putney announced a series of reforms on use of deadly force and increased community outreach, for instance, as well as ending ankle monitoring supervision for homicide suspects awaiting trial.

Merriweather’s office has announced an overhaul of how it determines bail standards as well as pushing the state to fund more local prosecutors for Mecklenburg, where 1 in 9 North Carolina residents live and 108 homicides were recorded last year – a 90% spike compared to 2018’s 57 homicides.

There is also more emphasis on cross-agency cooperation between CMPD, the District Attorney’s Office and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.

 

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