NAACP hosts community conversation about police violence

The Charleston branch of the NAACP put aside its regular business Thursday night to host a public discussion on police violence and its symptoms in black communities.

About 30 people participated — three Charleston police officers, representatives of the police department’s Illumination Project and residents.

NAACP President Dot Scott said it was important to air community concerns about killings by and of police in the wake of several high-profile incidents that left black men dead, including the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston.

Dot Scott said the NAACP is concerned about both public safety and civil rights.

“We want justice, whether it’s an officer being killed or a citizen being killed, we want justice to be served,” she said. “The NAACP doesn’t condone any kind of killing. Too often, the community is too quiet about the killing of African-American males.”

Gwen Robinson, a Mount Pleasant resident who was one of the most vocal critics at the meeting, said police violence against blacks is hardly a new phenomenon and those who seek to defend it are misguided. It’s the result of corruption, bias and lack of training, she said.

“(Policing) is hard work,” Robinson said. “If you’re no good, get a different job.”

Rod Rutledge is a citizen-participant in the Illumination Project, a police initiative to foster dialogue and reform. He said violence and incarceration are too often a consequence of limited access to quality schooling. He also faulted the “wall of silence” among officers who seek to protect one another when something goes wrong.

Some in attendance recounted traumatic experiences with law enforcement: traffic stops they claim were unjustified and mistreatment by officers.

Brenda Jackson, a College of Charleston student, said police officers should become more engaged in communities, more visible setting a good example.

“We need to hear from good cops,” she said.

Deputy Chief Jerome Taylor said police officers are public servants who benefit from such discussions. As a black man, he’s sympathetic to claims from both sides, he said.

“I know how it is to be stopped by the police,” he said. “I know what it means to walk down a dark alley with this gun and this badge.”

Robinson said part of the problem is a police force that’s partly conditioned by military experience. Some cops are recruited from branches of the armed services where they were trained to kill the enemy. In blighted neighborhoods where drugs and guns are pervasive, they view young residents as dangerous, and too often racial prejudice influences behavior.

“It’s no surprise that there is violence,” she said.

Also in attendance was Margaret Seidler, lead facilitator for the Illumination Project. Seidler said the initiative includes 100 leaders, including a 22-member steering committee of residents and that nearly 800 people have attended 32 meetings.

The meetings have generated numerous suggestions for policy changes, and on Aug. 9 and 11, project coordinators will host public review sessions at which 85 strategies to improve citizen-police relationships will be presented. The meetings are 6:30-8 p.m. at Greater St. Luke AME Church, 78 Gordon St.

To learn more about the effort, go to charlestonpolicefund.org and click on “Charleston Illumination Project” banner.