When police use force to subdue a suspect, part of my job as a reporter is to scrutinize what happened, to help the public determine whether officers’ actions were appropriate.
Last week, my colleague and I spent hours talking to witnesses about events surrounding a police shootout with -- and arrest of -- a robbery suspect.
Police say Malcolm Xavier Springs shot a man in a robbery on West Trade Street then shot and injured a police officer during a foot chase before the officer shot Springs in the abdomen. The police statement said nothing more about Springs' arrest. But eight people in the neighborhood told us that during the arrest, as Springs lay handcuffed (and apparently wounded) on the ground, several police officers hit, stomped and kicked Springs.
We published stories about these events on March 20, 21 and 22. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department then issued a special request for witnesses to come forward with information about the shootings and the arrest.
The department has declined to answer our questions about the arrest. But it sought to assure the public that investigators are reviewing the shooting -- as well as the arrest -- saying in a written statement: “In an effort to preserve the trust and confidence of the community, the CMPD investigates all accusations of officer misconduct.”
We may or may not hear from police about whatever their investigation concludes -- or whether any officers are disciplined. In two previous instances in which witnesses questioned the department's account of police shootings, the officers involved were cleared but the official explanations did little to address the discrepancies raised.
We will continue to seek answers in the Springs case. You should also know we do not publish allegations of police misconduct lightly.
The shooting between Springs and Officer Brent Harrison happened at 1:30 a.m. on a street with few overhead lights. Several people who said they saw what happened had just been awakened by sirens or gunshots. They might have been groggy. Most said they were scared.
We know from research and experience that eyewitness accounts can be inaccurate. We ask a lot of questions to be sure people are speaking from their own recollections, and not simply repeating things they’ve heard. We also ask for details to help us scrutinize their accounts, as well as their credibility.
What did you see? How far away were you? Where were you watching from? Could you see and hear well from there? Could you be fuzzy on details because of the early hour? How long did the events last? Was there any point when you couldn't see what was going on? Are you sure? Can we go over it all again? The questions can go on and on.
We also compare witness accounts. Are they similar, or are there discrepancies? Are they too much alike? Did the witnesses seem credible? Did they have a good vantage point?
Police may also be asking witnesses such questions. But we won't know unless or until they offer a detailed accounting of their investigation. Stay tuned.
-- Cleve R. Wootson Jr.