Police Chief Jon Zumalt reflects on 11 years as top North Charleston cop
When bullet-riddled and bloodied bodies piled up on the streets of North Charleston several years back, Police Chief Jon Zumalt took an unusual step for a top cop looking to keep his job: he admitted he needed help finding a way to end the violence.
By the numbers
Crime 2002 2011 2012
Murder 17 5 13
Rape 105 35 55
Robbery 440 184 216
Aggravated assault 801 429 436
Total violent crimes 1,363 653 720
Zumalt brought in a consultant, sent his commanders around the country to learn from others, adopted a host of innovative tactics and came up with some new ideas of his own. Then, police zeroed in on problem neighborhoods, flooded them with officers and tried to build community trust while simultaneously clamping down with increased traffic stops and patrols.
Zumalt’s approach garnered praise and scorn, with critics howling over heavy-handed tactics that smacked of racial profiling to some. But it also did something else: it helped cut North Charleston’s violent crime in half compared with what it was a decade before, according to police statistics.
So as Zumalt prepares to turn in his badge, pack his bags and retire at the end of this month, he said he is leaving South Carolina’s third-largest city with a deep sense of accomplishment after 11 years on the job.
“In the end, what it comes down to for a police chief is ‘Is the town safer than when you arrived?’ ” he said. “The answer here is clearly a ‘yes.’ ”
While his efforts have at times sparked controversy, Zumalt said, he believes a majority of residents are on the police department’s side. He pointed to a survey conducted last year by Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research that found 81 percent of 600 residents surveyed were satisfied with the North Charleston Police Department.
That doesn’t surprise such people as the Rev. Augustus D. Robinson Jr., pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
“He’s a visionary, and he’s been able to implement his visions, which No. 1 is to be a servant to the community and to reduce the crime rate,” said Robinson, who chairs a community panel that works with police.
Still, rumors have swirled in recent weeks that Zumalt, 57, was pushed out the door after a falling-out with North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, possibly over promotions and other changes the mayor demanded and the chief resisted. Both men deny that is the case.
Zumalt said he wants to return to his native Kansas, be around family and help care for his ailing mother, who has cancer. He said he told Summey last year that he wouldn’t be staying too late into the mayor’s latest term at City Hall, and they both felt now would be a good time to make the transition.
Summey concurred, and he described Zumalt as an excellent chief who “brought a sense of professionalism and accountability to the department.”
“Eleven years is a long time for a police chief to stay anywhere, honestly,” Summey said. “We just wish him well.”
Zumalt, in fact, is the longest-serving chief in North Charleston’s 40-year history (his predecessor, Chad Caldwell had the second-longest tenure, with seven years on the job).
A tough road
Zumalt arrived in North Charleston in December 2001, a former junior high school teacher who had followed his wife into law enforcement and spent 20 years rising through the ranks of the Wichita (Kan.) Police Department.
The plain-spoken Midwesterner suddenly found himself in a sprawling and diverse Southern city, with everything from bustling retail corridors to tidy new subdivisions and pockets of entrenched poverty rife with gun violence, drug sales and scores of ex-cons.
He worked to mend fences in the community and overcome the department’s image problems born in part from controversial, officer-involved shootings. He also worked to boost pay and morale, weed out problem officers and give the rank-and-file more of a voice in setting goals for the department, which won national accreditation in 2007.
Early on, he struggled after officers in 2003 shot Asberry Wylder, a black shoplifting suspect, in the middle of Rivers Avenue, stoking racial tensions. Zumalt suggested that witnesses who disagreed with the police version of events were either confused or lying.
He still counts that among his chief regrets. “That wasn’t smart,” he said. “Obviously, their accounts weren’t accurate, but that damaged me fairly early on with some members of the community, and it took me a long time to recover from that.”
Zumalt’s biggest challenge came when crime soared in the mid-2000s, reaching a high- water mark when the city racked up 55 killings between the start of 2006 and the end of 2007. That led to the unwanted distinction of North Charleston being named among the top 10 most dangerous cities in the country.
Chuck Wexler, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, still recalls his first visit to Zumalt’s office to discuss helping the city with its crime issues. On the other side of the door stood a display with photos of every person who had been murdered that year.
“He closed the door and he pointed to those pictures and said ‘We have to do better than this. This is a tragedy,’ ” Wexler recalled.
Wexler came on board and soon Zumalt and his commanders plugged into a vast network of police innovators across the country. They traveled to other cities to see strategies that worked and brought in folks like Charlie Beck, now chief of police in Los Angeles, to give talks and tips. They added manpower, improved response times, beefed up crime analysis and embedded officers in troubled neighborhoods to build stronger relations with the residents they serve.
The violent crime rate dropped dramatically, falling 52 percent between 2002 and 2011, with a low of five homicides recorded in 2011, according to police numbers.
“It wasn’t any one thing that did it. It was all of these things collectively that led to the reduction in violence,” he said. “And when you think about how violent this city was historically, to affect that kind of change is pretty phenomenal.”
The number of killings in the city crept back up to 13 last year, mirroring a regional trend, but Zumalt said he is optimistic that North Charleston’s gains in reducing violence will continue with the programs now in place.
Zumalt, once the man seeking advice, has now become a resource for leaders of other cities to turn to for tips on quelling their own crime issues, Wexler said. “His legacy will be that he came in and turned a difficult situation around,” he said. “It’s a great success story, there’s no question about it.”
His critics, however, still question the means Zumalt used to get to this point, particularly his flood-the-zones approach in marginal neighborhoods that led to the number of traffic stops citywide increasing by about 3,000, to nearly 64,000 in 2011.
NAACP leaders, in particular, have blasted the department for what they consider to be blatant racial profiling, a charge Zumalt denies. Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP’s North Charleston branch, even zinged the chief during the group’s annual Freedom Fund Banquet, warning national NAACP president Benjamin Jealous and other guests that they best be careful driving home, lest they be pulled over and ticketed as well.
Zumalt makes no apologies for such tactics, saying they were necessary to curb crime. He also noted that officers are required to politely explain to motorists why they pulled them over under the department’s “Sell the stop” program.
“We have to be in those neighborhoods,” Zumalt said. “We don’t have a choice.”
Summey said Zumalt’s successor, former chaplain and chief sheriff’s deputy Eddie Driggers, probably will introduce some new ideas and concepts of his own. But the traffic stops likely will continue in higher-crime neighborhoods.
“We are going to do whatever it takes to keep the peace,” he said. “We have to do everything in our power to protect the good and honest people in our community.”
Charleston NAACP president Dot Scott tangled with Zumalt on numerous occasions over the traffic stops and other issues, but she said she has mixed feelings about the chief’s departure.
While Zumalt did not have an open-door policy to those who challenged his policies, Scott said, she appreciated his efforts at bringing transparency to the department. For example, she said, he was quick to tell the public and take action after determining former Sgt. Eddie Bullard shot himself in July and concocted a story about being attacked by a black man.
Scott said she had the sense that Zumalt at times tried to do the right thing, but got interference from above.
“He may have been the silver lining in the whole effort to change that department,” she said.
If that’s the case, Zumalt isn’t saying. In fact, he is quick to credit Summey, City Council and his officers for the encouragement and support they’ve given him over the years to bring about change and improve the department.
He’s spent his last few weeks working with Driggers and helping him prepare to take the helm of the department, which has 325 sworn officers. He’ll probably hang around town for a bit after his Friday retirement party to sell his house, and then it’s off to Kansas.
Zumalt said he needs time to decompress and reassess before deciding on the next chapter in his life, but he’s not ruling out a return to law enforcement at some point.
“I still feel I can contribute,” he said. “I just don’t feel ready to retire. Financially I can, but mentally, I’m just not ready.”