Justin Hopson came to Charleston for three things: the slow pace, sweet tea and Southern charm.
But underlying his move was something more fundamental.
“I said, ‘I think it’s a good idea if I leave this state (New Jersey),’ ” said Hopson, 38. “I needed to start anew.”
The story of his move to Charleston begins in 2002, when he started his career as a rookie with the New Jersey State Police.
Shortly thereafter, everything began to change. It was in March, after only 11 days on the job, that Hopson witnessed the arrest of a woman for drunken driving, a charge he said was unlawful and refused to support.
The reason: She wasn’t driving. Instead, he said, she was riding in the back seat.
“There was no gray area,” he said.
Hopson confronted his training officer, who made the arrest, and eventually testified against him in court. In doing so, he ran afoul of the “Lords of Discipline,” which he called an organized “secret society” within the state police. The group regularly targeted women, minorities and anyone else who didn’t fall in line with them, he said.
The rookie officer fell into the latter group, and over the next several years he was harassed and threatened by its members.
“It was a death of a thousand cuts,” he said.
Some cuts went deeper than others. Officers drove by his home in the wee hours of the morning, shining their spotlights through his bedroom window or breathing deeply into the loud speaker receiver. Another, donning a Lords of Discipline T-shirt, elbowed him hard in the chest. He sometimes would find his car door covered in chewing tobacco and spit.
Hopson grew paranoid, and he was overcome by waves of “a deep depression” until he left the force.
All this, he said, for doing the right thing.
The experience led to a lawsuit and spurred the largest internal investigation in the state police’s history.
It’s led to a new life for Hopson, too. New Jersey settled with him in 2007, then he quit the force and packed up for South Carolina. Now, he said, his roots are in the Holy City.
He met his wife, Kristen, 30, at a local gym. The pair was married in White Point Garden. His daughters, Hanna and Hope, at 1 year and 5 months, respectively, also were born here.
Wednesday afternoon, he was enjoying the Lowcountry’s lazy pace at his Mount Pleasant home, sitting on a white leather couch in jeans and a tan button-down shirt with a hint of scruff. Outside, a porch overlooked a quiet pond, and a neighbor’s leaf blower could be heard in the background. No police cruisers drove by. His phone did not ring.
Hopson now owns a private investigation firm, Hopson Investigations, and has worked with Charleston County’s Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Advisory Board. He’s also active with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter and attends Seacoast Church. He published a book recounting his story, “Breaking the Blue Wall,” earlier this year, and he’ll share it at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Mount Pleasant Senior Center.
But when he speaks, he’ll be sharing a more fundamental lesson.
Some 10 years ago, Hopson stepped up to defend a citizen who he said was wrongly charged. In doing so, he garnered national attention as he shook up a large and, he said, insular New Jersey institution.
Today he believes more than ever in the importance of doing what’s right.
“We all make mistakes; we all sin — that’s just part of life,” Hopson said. “Whether it’s in your community, your neighborhood, your church, your family, act with integrity.
“That’s something we can all strive for.”
Reach Thad Moore at 958-7360 or on Twitter @thad moore.