by Michael Gordon
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mike Campagna had just popped some gum in his mouth Wednesday night when he heard his name rising above the din on Trade Street.
“Mike! Mike! Where’s Mike?”
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police major responded, and walked directly into a maelstrom.
Earlier in the day, District Attorney Andrew Murray had announced that the controversial police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September was legally justified. Scott’s death had set off two days of tense and occasionally violent demonstrations. As expected, Murray’s decision that his office would not bring charges brought a smaller delegation of protesters back to uptown.
Campagna, 46, returned with them. Two months ago, he earned grudging praise from some of the demonstrators for being one of the only police officers willing to engage the angry crowd.
Building on that experience, the Charlotte native and 24-year CMPD veteran has launched a new police approach to future public demonstrations. It’s called the “Constructive Conversation” unit.
On Wednesday night, Campagna was one of about 15 CMPD officers who waded into the public anger and distrust fueled by social media that has lingered in the city since Scott’s death. Some 50 officers have been hand-picked for the new unit. Their job is to engage protesters and build rapport one conversation at a time
Now the new unit was about to be street tested. Hearing his name called out, Campagna stepped into a horseshoe of protesters and the cross-hairs of their cell phone cameras.
The crowd, led by activist Ashley Williams, pummeled Campagna with questions about the Sept. 21 shooting death uptown of protester Justin Carr. Prosecutors have indicted a suspect in the killing; Williams, co-founder of Charlotte Uprising, and others still claim Carr’s death was caused by a rubber bullet fired by cops.
Williams dominated the exchange, their voice bullhorning allegations at the officer, from the absence of the bullet that allegedly killed Carr to the lack of gunpowder burns on Carr’s body. “You answer me NOW!” they shouted.
Campagna, who had been chewing his gum and nodding his head occasionally, tried to respond.
“You don’t have all the facts, and that’s OK,” he began.
The collective roar drowned him out. Williams’ voice rose again.
“F*** you,” they told Campagna. “You’re a liar.”
The confrontation burned across social media. A photograph showing Campagna facing the crowd appeared on the website of the New York Times.
Two days later, the major watched an Observer video of the moment with little reaction. Asked to critique his handling of the encounter, he started with the gum. He hates how it makes him look. And then there’s his answer – he’d like to have it back.
“I would not say, ‘You don’t have the facts,’ ” he began. “But that is a factual statement. They don’t have the facts in the Justin Carr case.”
Campagna, however, is well aware that police now operate in an environment where facts often clash.
“Sometimes you get a question but you come to see that they don’t want an answer,” he said. “And if you try to answer, there’s nothing you can say.”
“Sometimes, you have to set the facts aside and deal with the emotion, figure out what people are feeling and why.”
Eventually, he said, the conversation has to swing back to the facts, if any can be agreed upon.
Here are two key ones from his perspective: Police weren’t using rubber bullets the night that Carr was killed, he said; even if they had, a rubber bullet could not have caused the damage detailed in Carr’s autopsy.
Campagna has personal experience in standing alone before a hostile crowd, speaking what he believes to be the truth. CMPD has some 1,800 employees. Inside the department, few are more controversial than Campagna.
In 2013, Randall “Wes” Kerrick became the first Charlotte police officer in more than three decades charged with an on-duty shooting. At Kerrick’s 2015 trial, Campagna, one of CMPD’s experts in the use of lethal force, became the only department member to testify that Kerrick committed a crime.
Kerrick was justified in pulling his gun against the approaching and unarmed Jonathan Ferrell, he said, but Kerrick had used excessive force in opening fire.
Kerrick’s attorneys put other CMPD personnel on the stand to point out contradictions in how the department’s officers had been trained to use their weapons. They portrayed Campagna as nitpicking the life-and-death decisions of a fellow officer.
The case ended in a mistrial with the majority of the jury opting for acquittal. The black community felt betrayed. Many police officers, who never felt Kerrick should have been charged, focused some of their anger on Campagna. He was pilloried on social media as a turncoat.
While they won’t talk on the record, several sources familiar with the department say the officer remains damaged in the eyes of the department’s rank and file. Campagna, now CMPD’s head of training and recruitment, acknowledges as much.
“People who know me may not have agreed with my testimony but they could accept it,” he says. “But there are a lot of officers who don’t know me, and I know that was very troubling for them.”
The fallout lingers. Yet the episode gave Campagna a preview of having a difficult conversation with an unfriendly audience. He acknowledges that his testimony against Kerrick became a “heated” issue within his own command. When he offered his officers a chance to discuss their grievances with him in private, none of them showed.
Less than a year after his testimony, Campagna found himself walking up Trade Street with a large group of demonstrators angry about another police shooting of a black man, this time Keith Scott. An idea that had surfaced over the summer took fuller shape in his mind.
“What I kept hearing those nights was ‘Capt. Mike is great, but the rest of those guys are jerks.’ That’s not a fair assessment of our police department,” which he says is filled with people who want to engage.
The “Constructive Conversation” unit was born.
Police already are taught lessons on communication, body language and effective listening as part of their daily jobs. Now, using those skills “with people who really don’t like us, who are outraged and angry – well, I don’t know if that’s been done anywhere else,” he says.
Sgt. Chris Kopp, one of the “conversation” officers on duty Wednesday night, said the goal was not control but engagement. He said he was pressed by those on hand to account for CMPD’s use of force and other policies that he can’t control. At the same time, he said it was important to show the public that “we don’t have all the answers,” but were willing to hear the critics out.
Walking away, said Lt. Zeru Chickoree, is not an option.
Campagna said the officers must “weather the storm of outrage” until the speakers realize police are actually listening. Then a conversation may begin.
“If we have a person who’s very loud and very animated, that doesn’t necessarily make them threatening,” he said.
Like Ashley Williams?
“Exactly like Ashley Williams,” Campagna said. “There are a lot of people who I can talk to. She’s not one of them. That’s completely her choice.”
Williams said they are not impressed by the police’s new effort.
“I’m not interested in having a conversation with police,” they said in text messages. “There hasn’t been any transparency this whole time, and I’m not dumb enough to think that we will get any substantive answers now.”
Asked if they had anything to say to Campagna, they wrote: “Tell him to quit his job, and tell his co-workers to stop killing black people.”
Talk vs. change
In the Observer on Thursday morning, a photo of Campagna and Braxton Winston dominated the front page.
Campagna says they were discussing the Justin Carr case, but it wasn’t much of a conversation because onlookers kept shouting them down.
He used his relationship with Winston as an example of what the Constructive Conversation unit hopes to achieve. The two don’t agree on much, Campagna said, but each has been willing to hear what the other has to say.
Winston’s assessment is more ambivalent.
“Personally speaking, it’s cool that we have a relationship, but that’s not the story that needs to be told,” Winston said. “It’s about institutional change … and the institution he represents is morally corrupt.”
Besides, Winston says, the people who should be having the difficult conversations with demonstrators are Mayor Jennifer Roberts, Police Chief Kerr Putney and the other true power brokers – not Campagna and his officers, who can’t bring about reforms.
The major, in turn, said the role of the new team is building relationships that inform both sides. Each conversation can chip away at rumors, misinformation and stereotypes that have traveled around the city and the web for the past two months.
Stereotypes of young black men being lawless thugs or of cops being licensed killers.
Stereotypes, he says, that can get people on both sides killed.
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS