Local private investigator advocates interfaith dialogue
The roots of Howard Comen’s double interest — law enforcement and interfaith religious dialogue — lay in his youth.
Comen, a Charleston-based private investigator, grew up Jewish near New Haven, Conn. His family was not particularly observant but the Comens identified strongly with their cultural inheritance. He was a student at the University of South Carolina studying political science and planning to become a lawyer when he fell in love with a Baptist woman.
His father cut him off. That, along with insufficient grades and his relationship with a South Carolina girl, prevented him from pursuing his dream at the New England School of Law.
It was 1969, and the USC- Columbia campus had been shaken by a few rapes, Comen said. He proposed setting up a student night patrol unit that could assume a neutral role between the campus population and law enforcement officials and possibly help quell unrest.
Then-state Attorney General Daniel McLeod reportedly liked the idea and introduced Comen to J.P. Strom, who was head of the State Law Enforcement Division. Comen said Strom agreed to pay $2 an hour to students willing to keep a lookout for unrest and provide escort services, equipping the group with a permit that would allow its members to remain outdoors after curfew.
That led Comen to the role of director of student government security, from which he formed the Student Marshal Program.
He secured a Carnegie Institute grant to help him write a research paper on the student role in security matters. Strom soon would invite Comen to apply for a position with SLED.
But the young man’s interest in law enforcement ran along an independent path; he would set up a private security business, receiving one of the first SLED licenses issued to a private investigator.
About the same time, he married. Comen and his first wife, Lynn, had two sons, Kyle and Casey, who were encouraged to decide for themselves which religion they would embrace.
“Religion is supposed to be a positive, not a negative,” Comen said. Jews and Christians shared much in common; the moral lessons were similar. There should be more cooperation and understanding, he thought.
Then his two interests began to intersect. He began working on a case of alleged corruption involving construction problems on the Mark Clark Expressway and a missing bridge inspector. Comen obtained thousands of pages of documents, much of which seemed incomprehensible.
The bridge inspector’s wife wanted to visit a psychic, who told Comen the answer could be found in the middle of page 121 of a small contract, one of the many documents in his possession. The passage referred to load-bearing pilings and expansion and contraction of the road. Three months later, a portion of the road collapsed.
The problem? Load-bearing pilings, expansion and contraction, Comen said.
It seemed the psychic was right, but Comen was left feeling uneasy, and his concern turned to distress when, at Litchfield Beach soon after, he met Mickey Spillane. The famous crime novelist quoted 1 Samuel 28: the story of King Saul and the witch of Endor, in which Saul, facing battle with the Philistines and no longer a focus of God’s attention, rushes to a medium in fear, only to be told by the ghost of his father Solomon that David shall inherit the kingdom, while Saul and his armies suffer terrible defeat.
“I was scared to death,” Comen said.
He went to his Conservative rabbi, who referred him to the Orthodox rabbi, who suggested he consult the Chabad rabbi in Myrtle Beach. This rabbi reassured Comen; he had not violated God’s law, he had followed his instinct.
“You did not call the dead, which God forbids,” the rabbi explained, according to Comen. “They called you.”
But Comen would not rest on his laurels.
“I see religion as causing my own little problem,” he said, referring to this spiritual crisis. “Then when my sons were born, it made no sense to me that there should be this disparity (between faiths and traditions).” All religions are inter-related; all share lessons and even certain figures. Hinduism gave rise to Buddhism. Judaism is at the root of both Christianity and Islam.
The private investigations continued. But it was interfaith understanding that increasingly informed his efforts. In the early 1990s, former Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg and Comen’s mother co-chaired a Jewish minyan, or communal prayer, to which a local imam had been invited. The Muslim leader spoke of the need for people of different faiths to work together in harmony, Comen recalled.
Afterward, Greenberg suggested getting a Jew, Muslim and Christian together to talk about the common denominator: Abraham. That triggered meetings and discussions and coordination until, finally, the Charleston Congress of Religions was born, with Comen playing a central role. Its members gathered for about five years.
On the 2010 anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Unity Church pastor Ed Kosak organized an interfaith gathering at James Island County Park. Comen was there.
Recently, he helped establish the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina, a group housed at USC’s Religious Studies Department. Its chairman is Carl Evans, professor emeritus of religious studies, and currently includes representatives of 10 religious traditions.
For Comen, 62 and remarried for nearly 20 years to wife Michelle, religion is nothing without a hefty dose of social justice. Two recent investigations, prompted by prisoners who claimed they were wrongly convicted, caused Comen to forge a relationship with retired Judge Robert Leeper, vice president of the Lowcountry Ministerial Alliance who works on crime issues with Calvary AME Church.
The two men met with the Rev. Chris Collins, a Charleston County School Board member and pastor of Healing Ministries Baptist Church; Ed Bryant, director of the North Charleston branch of the NAACP; state Rep. David Mack; and others. Together they formed the Lowcountry Justice Commission, a group of concerned citizens focused on the principles of equal justice, education and economic opportunity. The idea, Comen said, is to push for legislative action.
Already, a bill has been crafted by Cornell University law professor John Blume, a death penalty expert. The Racial Justice Act is meant to amend Title 17 of state law “to provide for the fair and reliable imposition of capital sentences.”
“I got involved because I think it’s a great issue,” Mack said. “I like Howie a lot. Over the last four to five years, I’ve really been impressed with his integrity, I’ve been impressed with his focus to do the right thing, and for justice to be done.”
Comen comes armed with data and the capabilities to do investigations, Mack said. He has shown how sometimes confessions are coerced, convictions wrongfully made.
“We’re just looking for fairness and justice,” Mack said.
The NAACP’s Bryant praised Comen for his sincerity.
“He is whole-heartedly dedicated to doing something for people at the lower levels,” Bryant said. It helps to have someone involved who’s savvy about the judicial system.
What’s needed to ensure fairness is both a willing Statehouse that legislates it and a willing judicial branch that enforces it,” Bryant said.
“There are already a lot of laws on books not being looked at, not getting enforced, particularly with low-income people.”
Comen said change is certainly possible.
“This is the Holy City. You have the right people in the right places,” he said. The challenge is in getting them to act. And here religion seeps in again. “There is a material and spiritual side to everybody,” Comen continued. “Politics has to consider the material side. So do clergy.” It requires vision. But vision, he said, depends on opportunity. Without opportunity, how can you have hope?
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