HICKS COLUMN: Numbers don't lie: Zumalt did well
When Jon Zumalt took over as police chief in 2001, North Charleston was kind of a scary place.
The crime index was about three times the national average, murders were on the rise, and the city was well on its way to becoming one of the top 10 most dangerous places in the country.
It was some first impression.
“The big issue, in my mind, was the violence,” Zumalt says. “It was just so shocking. I wanted to do something to make our community safer.”
He could have come in and dictated a plan for the police department. Instead he asked community leaders, neighborhood associations and the officers who worked for him what needed to be done.
The chief listened and built his strategy based on those suggestions. Most everyone bought into it because it was their plan as much as his.
These folks made a difference. Today, violent crime in North Charleston is down about 55 percent.
Price of safety?
Zumalt announced his retirement last week, marking the end of a transitional era for North Charleston.
In 2001, few people could have imagined the city it has become — outlet malls, an entertainment/convention complex, Boeing. Make no mistake, addressing crime was one of the city's biggest hurdles to success.
It hasn't been easy. Zumalt had to take grief for increased traffic stops that some say disproportionately target black residents.
The fact is, Zumalt has done nothing but step up patrols and police presence in areas with the biggest crime problems. That's not profiling, it's statistics. And by the numbers, it has not been unreasonable. In 2011, traffic stops were up about 3,000 — basically 5 percent.
This is a debate that mirrors our national predicament: How much freedom from hassle are we willing to give up in exchange for safety?
Most North Charleston residents don't seem to think Zumalt has gone too far. A survey commissioned by the police department found that 80 percent of North Charleston residents are satisfied with the job their officers are doing.
Critics point out that complaints against North Charleston police have jumped from 36 last year to possibly 80 this year.
But when you consider that last year North Charleston police responded to 214,638 calls, even 80 complaints — if there are that many — is a miniscule number.
This might be more of a problem if Zumalt had not shown a willingness to tackle problems with the department transparently. And he has reached out to critics, even though he wishes they had offered more in the way of advice than allegations.
Mainly, Zumalt doesn't like people running down the good work of his police force.
“I'm proud of the police department for year in, year out, doing what it takes to make our community safer,” he says. As he should be. Those folks do a good job.
The numbers don't lie: When Chief Zumalt retires in January, he will leave North Charleston in far better shape than he found it.
And for that we should be thankful.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org