CHARLOTTE (Queen City News) – Exactly one month ago today the City of Charlotte told the public it shelved all radar and lidar units inside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
The city said the public technicians inside the city’s radio shop had performed the annual testing on the radar and lidar units, but those technicians, “did not have the certification required by state law to do that work,” Reenie Askew said in a Feb. 15, 2023 telephone press conference.
Askew confirmed supervisors inside the city’s Public Safety Communications Division had signed off on annual radar/lidar certifications.
We filed an open records request with the city on Jan. 26, nearly three weeks before the city’s announcement. Our request sought copies of all radar and lidar annual certifications performed by the city’s radio shop between 2018 and 2022. The city did not turn those records over to us until a week after the city’s announcement.
Our analysis of those records showed 512 annual certifications performed by the city’s radio shop. On 506 certifications, two supervisors, Ernest Stevenson and James Finger, signed off on the forms as the “testing technician,” claiming to be the one performing the testing on radar and lidar units for CMPD, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office and the Matthews Police Department.
The remaining six certification records were signed by a radar/lidar manufacturer technician holding the General Radiotelephone Operators License issued through the Federal Communications Commission, the basic license to perform the testing under North Carolina law.
Personnel records provided to Queen City News by the city on March 14 show Stevenson and Finger were suspended the week after Askew announced the investigation into the city’s radio shop. Stevenson was suspended five days (Feb. 20 through Feb. 24) and Finger was suspended three days (Feb. 22 through Feb. 24), the personnel records show.
The city ignored multiple questions asking whether the suspensions were linked to the internal investigation into the radio certifications. QCN’s Chief Investigator Jody Barr sent an email to Finger and Stevenson’s city email address asking for an interview.
As of the posting of this article, neither supervisor responded.
The personnel record shows Stevenson was hired by the city in 1998 and is currently listed as a Radio System Supervisor with an annual salary of $98,178.13. Finger, also listed as a Radio System Supervisor, was hired in 2006 and has a current annual salary of $102,458.31.
The city told QCN it expects to release a written report on its internal investigation by the end of March.
Although the city didn’t tell the public about the crisis brewing inside its city radio shop until Feb. 15, Tony Torrez, a radio technician fired more than a month earlier, told QCN he informed the city the annual certifications were not done properly as far back as August 2022. Torrez said the city terminated him after he raised – on multiple occasions – concerns about the city’s radar and lidar certification process.
“In August, I was accused of doing the work incorrectly. And then I took short leave of absence from work for personal reasons. And during that time, I received my own license. And during that time, when I received my license, the ethics of how the testing was done came up. And I agree with it. And my classmates said, hey, that’s unethical. So I started looking into it. And I knew I was going to be expected to do what my supervisors were doing, which was basically signing off on the documentation without doing the work themselves. And then I realized after talking to FCC in North Carolina Department of Justice, that that’s not what they expected us to do. They expected the person to do the testing, be the one that signed the form to actually have a license, and no one to my shop as of today, except for myself,” Torrez told Barr.
The FCC license database showed Torrez, Stevenson, and Finger were the only city staffers within the radio shop to hold a GROL license at the time of the city’s announcement. FCC records show Torrez was issued a license in October 2022.
“We would do the testing, put the forms on their (Stevenson and Finger) desk. If they happen to be in the office, they would sign them the same day. If not, they might come in a week later and sign a stack of documents saying that they had personally subjected the equipment, which wasn’t the case. So I brought that up in my defense, ‘Hey, you know, this is – you’re accusing me of falsifying a document that I’m not certified to sign or even do the testing for.’ But they ignored that and terminated me anyways,” Torrez said during a February interview during his termination from the city.
Torrez said officials within the North Carolina Department of Justice assured him his interpretation of the state’s radar and lidar certification statute was correct: technicians must be licensed through the FCC and the person who performed the radar work was the one who signed the form.
Torrez said he told his bosses at the city exactly that before his termination in January.
“People felt like they were being rubbed wrong because they were being criticized. I wasn’t criticizing, I thought I should have been thanked. ‘Hey, you found this issue. You corrected it. Now this officer is not going to have a problem. Great job.’ I never heard that, ever. You know, it was more. ‘You’re, you’re criticizing people, you’re putting your peers down, you know, you’re, you’re coming to us with problems instead of solutions,'” Torrez said.
“I felt like I was I was made a target. I wasn’t treated fairly. And I brought it up several times. And it never, never went in my favor. Obviously, I’m sitting here with you, because I was terminated over bringing up something that now the city’s you know, acknowledging, hey, you know, this is the case.”Tony Torrez, City of Charlotte Radio Technician
“I mean, for the entire police department to pull all their units and tell their officers not to be using them, I feel validated in what I was trying to tell my supervision,” Torrez told QCN.
The day before the city’s unannounced press conference, city officials contacted Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather to tell him about what Torrez exposed.
“When we receive this information as a prosecuting agency, we’re thinking about how it impacts our cases in court. And so, we immediately began to think about do we have, or what is our duty to disclose this to people who’ve been charged, decided, as well as what cases or how does it impact our ability to proceed on speeding cases,” Merriweather told QCN.
One of the first notifications by prosecutors was to the defense bar.
Merriweather said his office has already dismissed some speeding cases, but the DA’s office isn’t keeping count of the number of cases. Prosecutors have not dismissed any violent crimes connected to a speeding case, the DA told Barr in the March 1 interview.
The city told the public on Feb. 15 the mishandling of the annual radar certifications started in 2008, but only a portion of those cases have a chance to be reviewed because most of the court records for those cases no longer exist making review “virtually impossible,” Merriweather said.
“Without the records, which usually are purged from our clerk’s office sometimes anywhere from three to five years after the case has been closed, those cases cannot be found, which means that that information which would permit a lawyer who wanted to look into one of those older cases to see whether or not an officer relied on LIDAR/radar, they couldn’t do it.”
The DA expects most speeding cases can still be prosecuted because the radar or lidar reading is used to supplement an officer’s observation and is “corroborative evidence.”
“I think that because of the breadth of the announcement a couple weeks ago, a lot of people were under the impression that this means that the District Attorney’s office has to get rid of a whole bunch of speeding tickets. And we’re certainly going to have to dispose of a lot of them, but not all of them, which is one of the reasons why all of our prosecutors are being asked to give these cases a case-by-case look,” Merriweather told Barr.
“Our first responsibility is fairness. We have to be able to uphold and maintain a level of confidence in this community. Because on the murder cases and the rape cases and the robbery cases, we need you to trust us on those. And that means that you’ve got to trust us when it comes to the small stuff too,” Merriweather said.
The DA admitted the city’s handling of the radar certifications could force his office to dismiss criminal charges in cases tied to the certifications.
“Anytime that someone certifies that they personally did the test, and they weren’t the ones that did the testing, that’s problematic,” Charlotte defense attorney Bill Powers told QCN, “That could be a type of misrepresentation, if admitted into evidence into court.”
Powers has spent 30 years facing off against the DA’s office in Mecklenburg County courtrooms.
“It may not end up affecting a whole lot of cases substantively in the court. I do think it affects people’s trust in the system,” Powers said. “And it’s not just a minor technical violation, in my mind, that can just be ignored. My question is what what’s the next step? You know, make sure this doesn’t happen in future? And the next question is, what are we going to do to determine did this, in fact, affect people and affect them adversely? And we don’t know.”
NC’s rules of evidence classify radar and lidar certification forms as “competent and prima facie evidence” for use in court. Powers said judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement statewide have relied upon these forms and assumed their accuracy for decades.
Even though the city’s radio shop has rocked the trust of those who’ve depended on it with the certifications, Powers said he’s confident the judicial system will work to ensure justice is preserved.
“When Spencer Merriweather says that they’re going to do the right thing, they’re going to do the right thing. And if I were a prosecutor, I would, I’d be a little upset that I’m having to get rid of cases that I know otherwise would have been made or could have been made. But for the wrong person signing off on the form that it’s just not gonna happen. That’s got to be frustrating,” Powers said.