Crime is down in North Charleston, and that’s a good thing.

But if a rising number of residents are complaining about police tactics — some claiming to be as afraid of police as much as the criminals — there is more work to be done. And more discussions to be had.

Law enforcement’s job is to provide a safe environment. If in doing that, they become or are perceived to be part of the problem, the environment is unsafe no matter how fewer criminals are walking the streets.

According to Sunday’s front-page report by Andrew Knapp and Robert Behre, residents filed 120 complaints against police from 2008 to the first three months of this year. Complaints rose from 22 in 2008 to 36 last year. There have been 21 in the first three months of this year.

Chief Jon Zumalt said critics are a small group who are “uninformed and out of touch with reality,” and ignore the statistics that indicate successful crimefighting.

Even a small group needs to be acknowledged, especially if others are joining the critical chorus.

Checks and balances

Taking the city from being the seventh-most-violent in the nation with 28 homicides in 2006 to five homicides last year is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a herculean effort, and Zumalt should be proud.

Until residents of all races can feel safe and have a better rapport with police, there is unfinished work.

No one wants to be challenged unnecessarily for walking in their own neighborhood, or feel like a criminal for not having an ID at all times. There is always discomfort in being stopped by police. But if you get stopped multiple times for minor offenses, it can annoy you.

The chief said the department must continue its tactics to keep a handle on crime. Then he must also get as tough about promoting good communications and fairness so residents are part of the solution and not feel alienated by the very group charged with protecting them.

Open communications and discussions can only help.

Police say they target minority communities because that’s where most crimes are committed. No argument there. But they must remember that most people in crime-ridden neighborhoods are law-abiding citizens who want respect.

Police must resist the temptation to lump everyone in the same group, treating everyone as a criminal. That does not sit well with anyone, no matter what race they are.

When police use get-tough tactics, not everyone is going to like it. But history also tells us that with these tactics, especially where race is concerned, there needs to be constant checks and balances to make sure the lines between good police work and harassment are crystal clear.

What now?

Zumalt has held community meetings to help bridge the divide with the black community. He should do more to show good faith. Has anyone given any serious thought to North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant’s suggestion that police get sensitivity training?

Mayor Keith Summey said he has been stopped by police five times.

“It made me feel good,” he said.

How would perception change if everyone stopped were treated as if he were the city’s mayor?