Six years ago, North Charleston was first labeled as one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. Homicides were reported at a clip of nearly 30 per year.
Complaints by race
One hundred twenty complaints were lodged against the North Charleston Police Department from 2008 through the first three months of 2012; of those, 89 listed a race for the complainant and the primary officer involved.Black people complaining about white officers: 55(62 percent)Black people complaining about black officers: 8 (9 percent)Total complaints from black people: 63 (71 percent)White people complaining about white officers: 23(26 percent)White people complaining about black officers: 1(1 percent)Total complaints from white people: 24(27 percent)Others (involving Hispanic complainants or officers): 2(2 percent)— Source: North Charleston Police Department
Desperate to shake the distinction, city officials enacted a policy of aggressive patrolling — incessant stops of motorists for minor violations, seemingly random interviews with residents, a virtual police occupation of neighborhoods in the days just after violence occurs.
Police by race
The racial breakdown of 325 sworn officers in the North Charleston Police Department. Figures do not add up to 100 because of rounding:58% white men17% white women13% black men8% black women4% Hispanic men1% Hispanic women1% other women
It would create constant contact with residents of the most troubled communities. It would establish sources of on-the-street intelligence. Such eyes and ears friendly to the police force would help solve crime and prevent further violence.
N. Chas. crime rate since 2006
In 2006, Washington-based CQ Press named North Charleston as the seventh most-dangerous city in the nation. Since then, the North Charleston Police Department has touted its efforts to reduce crime. The last CQ study in 2010 ranked it the 70th most-dangerous city, and 2011 was one of the most tranquil years on record. Here are the numbers during that span.Year Homicides Crime rate per 1,000 people2006 28 0.322007 26 0.292008 14 0.152009 10 0.102010 12 0.122011 5 0.05North Charleston Police Department
To those officials, the strategy worked; in 2010 the number of people killed fell to five.
But to the critics that the city has amassed in recent years, the approach has come at a price — those consistently subjected to stops and field questioning are mostly black people from the poorest neighborhoods.
What they call harassment and racial profiling has only further alienated them from the authorities.
They contend that aggressive patrols are backfiring, and the proof is in the numbers: 36 people filed written complaints about the police in 2011, compared with 22 in 2008, when the policy was in its formative days.
In 2012, complaints are coming in at a rate that could total 80 by the new year. A majority of those complaining are black.
And homicides this year already have surpassed the total for all of 2011.
Leaders from local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are among the most consistent detractors. They say they represent a large sect that is frustrated with the police but fearful to speak out.
All critics, including the Rev. Joe Darby of the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, have acknowledged the flattened crime rate over the six-year period. Darby wants the city to gather more input from the residents themselves before subjecting them to such policing measures.
“You can get to the end with a much different means that would leave the community less damaged and less troubled,” said Darby, first vice president of Charleston’s NAACP branch. “Things can’t just look right; they have to be right.”
According to Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Jon Zumalt, the NAACP representatives are long on talk, short on solutions and dismissive of statistics.
The city leaders insist their effort has sliced the number of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 20 targeted neighborhoods by almost two-thirds. The city has emerged from the troubled days of 2006, when a Washington think tank labeled it the seventh most dangerous in the nation.
The bloody times that gave rise to their policy will return if they abandon the approach, they argue.
And that the effort focuses on black communities makes sense, the mayor said, because 83 percent of all people arrested are black, even though only 47 percent of the city’s population is black and 42 percent is white.
“When you look at that, where do you put your major patrols?” Summey said. “The majority doesn’t feel picked on. The majority feels safer.”
Complaints on rise
A North Charleston police officer first stopped Jamie Roper in the front yard of his Westview Street home. Roper had been speeding through the neighborhood just moments earlier, the officer said. Roper got a ticket for reckless driving.
Weeks later, Roper was inside a barbershop when he got another citation. When he walked outside, the same officer wrote him up for having loud music in his restored 1987 Chevrolet Camaro with orange paint and shiny rims.
“He spoke to me as if I wasn’t human,” Roper said. “He said he was going to get me. He said he was going to put his (police) dog on me.”
Judges dismissed the tickets, but Roper bemoaned taking time off his job as a Boeing engineer to challenge the citations.
And he figured it was just a matter of time before it happened again. So he did something about it.
Roper, a 36-year-old black man, lodged a written complaint against the officer, James Greenawalt, who later was reassigned to a different community. Roper hasn’t had a problem since.
“He probably didn’t think a young black male could drive a decent car without being up to no good,” Roper said. “I’m pretty sure they’re alienating the neighborhood, the lower-budget neighborhoods.”
Roper’s complaint was one of 36 against the police department in 2011, the highest annual total since the agency’s stepped-up patrol efforts began 2007, according to a Post and Courier review of the filings. In the first quarter of 2012 the department fielded 21 such complaints, which is on pace for 84 by the year’s end.
Since 2008, when the department’s tactics were in full swing, 120 complaints have been filed. Of the 89 that indicated the race of the complainant and the primary officer involved, 62 percent were black people complaining about white officers.
Zumalt pointed out that compliments far exceed complaints. From 2008 through 2011, officers received 186 letters of praise from residents.
Rising complaints, he said, are a product of increased contact with community members and a growing police force, which stands at 325 sworn officers.
Internal investigators also seek out complaints, Zumalt said. They frequently disperse into the city’s Liberty Hill area to hear residents’ concerns.
Each is vetted, he said. Officers found in violation of policies, such as one that bans racial profiling, are disciplined; those who continue to violate them are fired.
“I have to know when those mistakes are made, so I can improve the workforce,” the chief said. “A lot of these folks don’t bring those concerns to me.”
City Councilman Michael Brown, who is black, represents a district that includes at least three targeted neighborhoods around Dorchester Road. Too many people call him to complain, he said, when they should be contacting the police.
“I need you to follow through,” Brown said of those people. “If you don’t, it will be hearsay.”
Darby said it is understandable why many do not. The minorities and impoverished people think they will be targeted more if they step forward, he said.
“(The police) are looking for those who are black, Hispanic and poor,” he said. “A lot of folks are not going to say anything.”
Most of the complainants contacted by The Post and Courier said their disputes were properly investigated. An exception was Tracy Davis, who works as a contractor in Afghanistan and splits her time in the U.S. between North Charleston and North Carolina.
Davis, 29, had just left a relative’s home one December morning when she was stopped on Dorchester Road for what an officer said was a broken rear light. She later found nothing wrong with the fixture and figured that the officer stopped her because of the car she was driving — a burgundy and black 2007 Chevrolet Impala with tinted windows and flashy rims.
The officer, she said, swore to her that he smelled marijuana. Davis insisted that she never smokes, but the officer searched her car regardless.
He found nothing.
The department responded to her complaint “that things like this shouldn’t happen to anyone” by saying the officer had cause to conduct the search.
“It was his word against mine,” Davis said. “I’ve never been searched, never been in trouble. I work for what I have, and I just felt violated.”
Profiling at work?
Few of the 120 complaints reviewed by the newspaper specifically accused the entire agency of racial profiling.
One man, 37-year-old Tony Hodges of Houston Street, was pulled over on Dorchester Road in early December for defective brake and plate lights. Hodges, who the police said was arrested during the stop for having an active warrant from North Carolina, filed a complaint against the white officer and two black officers who searched his vehicle and found $3,300 of what he called “utility money.”
Hodges called on the department to investigate his claims and bring “closure to harassment and discrimination and racial profiling that I and many others have to endure while living in North Charleston.”
But the complaint didn’t say how officers profiled Hodges, and Zumalt denied ever finding evidence of such activity.
Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, who lives in North Charleston’s Pepperhill community, was one of the first to file a personal complaint with racial overtones. She claimed officers showed a “severe bias” against her in 2008 as she tried to evict tenants from her rental property.
Scott “was interrogated, humiliated and demeaned,” she said, and threatened with arrest by the two white officers who claimed she hadn’t given the renters proper notice. She demanded that the officers undergo a polygraph test after they filed what she called a false incident report.
“While we are fortunate that the majority of our officers are good and honest public servants and city employees,” she wrote in the complaint, “it is obvious that there is still much work to be done.”
Those who have accused the department’s officers of harassment in recent years are not limited to a single race. Black, white and Hispanic people interviewed by the newspaper said zealous policing victimizes all residents of the target areas, regardless of skin color.
The city’s mayor has been stopped five times in Charleston Farms, a high-crime neighborhood near his home, he said. Summey often was warned for rolling through stop signs.
“It made me feel good,” he said of the police activity.
The police department has struggled to bring its own workforce in line with demographics at large — about 21 percent of its officers are black. The city implemented efforts to recruit from its own population, such as seminars in which potential police recruits learned about having low-level offenses expunged from their criminal records.
For Zumalt, hiring minorities has been a challenge in his decade as chief.
“The perfect scenario is where the department’s demographic mirrors the city it serves,” he said. “We’re overcoming the history where it’s a white, male profession. We’re doing everything we can.”
The relationship between the minority communities and the department is improving, said Brown, the councilman.
Folks from Dorchester Terrace who attended a recent neighborhood meeting welcomed the police presence, he said. But only a fraction of the residents typically attend such meetings.
Increased patrols in minority communities is “a fact that we have to face,” he said. “It’s a social issue we have to deal with.”
North Charleston hasn’t been alone in the racially charged criticism it receives about an overbearing police force.
In New York City, a policy known as “stop-and-frisk” has resulted in a high number of arrests for black youngsters, most notably for marijuana possession. State legislators’ attempt to address that by decriminalizing a small amount of marijuana failed.
North Charleston’s officers made 1,500 arrests for simple marijuana possession in 2011, and many came during traffic stops. Zumalt knows a misdemeanor charge can put a damper on young lives and prevent employment.
But in a pilot effort documented in a future “Dateline NBC” episode, the city gave eight low-level drug dealers from Charleston Farms a chance to rehabilitate themselves, according to Zumalt. Four succeeded.
“Who else is doing that?” the chief said. “Nobody.”
The line on fines
NAACP leaders’ most strident plea for change centers on a contention that the policy worsens the plight of the poor. Because they typically live in the most crime-ridden areas, the poor are the most likely to be ticketed, the NAACP contends.
Denise Frazier was stopped for having a turn signal that blinked too fast, and after she had her day in court, she still had to pay an $82 fine for violating her beginner’s permit.
Frazier, 24, felt pestered by the police and depressed by the fine. “That’s the main part of it,” she said. “I don’t have a job.”
Because courts don’t scrutinize fines by neighborhood and offense, how deeply the heightened police presence cuts into these residents’ wallets is difficult to quantify. Overall, revenue from the city’s police fines rose from $1.65 million six years ago to $1.94 million in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Zumalt said officers are not concerned about making money for the government. In fact, they write more warnings than citations.
But that’s not the impression that frequently ticketed residents get.
After Derrick Chavis lost his driver’s license for unpaid traffic tickets in Georgia, he turned to a mo-ped in hopes of avoiding further problems.
The Hanahan resident bought a blue and black Peace Sport scooter and rode to his job as a caterer in downtown Charleston.
Chavis, 48, was trying to pay bills and bring home food every day for his family when a North Charleston police officer started stopping him early this year on Remount Road in Charleston Farms.
His first citation, for $560, was for riding the mo-ped without a license, which he didn’t need by state law. He was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car.
During another stop, the officer warned his girlfriend, who was riding on the back without eye protection, which isn’t required of riders unless they are under 21.
Another time, the officer demanded proof that he owned the vehicle. Chavis figured he was singled out for being a “black man with a brand-new mo-ped in a screwed-up job market.”
Then the officer revealed his true motivation, according to Chavis. He would ease up if Chavis revealed some information about the area’s drug dealers.
“That made me mad,” Chavis said. “I know nothing about that. I’m not into drugs anymore. I’m 10 years sober. For him to say that to me, it made me sick.”
Chavis’ complaint was under investigation, but Zumalt said such encounters with residents sometimes do yield intel that solves crimes.
A prime example of the efforts’ fruits, the chief said, came when Pfc. Anthony Dipaolo arrested a man in December for illegally carrying a firearm. During conversation, the man told Dipaolo that he “might have some good things to talk about,” according to a commendation Dipaolo received for officer of the month.
The man later revealed that he had witnessed an unsolved homicide that spring in Charleston. Investigators made four arrests because of the information.
“It was due to the way that Pfc. Dipaolo handled this subject that he felt comfortable sharing,” his award citation read.
Dipaolo would later come under fire by the NAACP in March after he shot a 17-year-old accused of pointing a gun at him.
What the future holds
In the first half of 2012, North Charleston’s homicides have increased by 250 percent over the same period last year. The number of shooting victims was up by 100 percent. The total number of violent crimes, however, was unchanged.
To Zumalt, the recent upswing in slayings is further proof that the department should stick to the tactics it has employed in recent years.
“I have to approach crime reduction the way I am,” he said. “I cannot stop the strategies I put in place. If I do — we’ve already seen evidence again this year — just like that, it will blow up on us, and we have this.”
Zumalt pointed at two posters emblazoned with photographs of homicide victims from 2006 and 2007, the two deadliest years in the city’s history.
Some victims had bullet holes in their heads. A man’s leg was missing. Intestines spilled from another. One body was nearly skeletonized.
“We’ve got blood in our streets,” the chief said. “I can’t stop.”
Zumalt said the small group of critics are “uninformed and out of touch with reality,” and continue to ignore the statistics indicating successful crime-fighting.
But according to Darby, success should be measured not only by numbers but by the quality of communication between the police and the people.
“If you have community confidence,” he said, “then you have more effective policing.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
up in arms
North Charleston police officers search a man during a traffic stop on Rivers Avenue near the scene of a shooting in the Russeldale area. Some black leaders claim residents of high-crime neighborhoods, which are subject to increased police patrols after outbreaks of violence, are too frequently stopped and harassed by officers.×
Deputy Chief Reggie Burgess, left, Chief Jon Zumalt and Deputy Chief David Cheatle of the North Charleston Police Department listen to presentations during a biweekly “CompStat” meeting in which leaders discuss how to dedicate resources for policing according to crime statistics.×