Charleston police aim to bridge ‘trust gaps’

Police Chief Greg Mullen greets community members after a prayer gathering of the Charleston Illumination Project at Emanuel AME Church in June. The Police Department has announced a plan for policy changes and trust-building initiatives.

Echoing President Barack Obama’s call for Americans to “reject despair” in the wake of police-involved shootings and the fatal ambush of officers in Dallas, local leaders announced Wednesday that policy changes and trust-building initiatives could be underway at the Charleston Police Department as soon as October.

And once Charleston has a plan in place, leaders of the project said they hope to share what they learned with police leaders nationwide, starting with a presentation at the White House.

The as-yet-unspecified changes, which would require approval by City Council, are the fruits of the Illumination Project, which gathered input from about 750 community members over the course of 10 months’ worth of listening sessions in the wake of the Emanuel AME Church shooting.

“We cannot continue down the road we’re going today,” Police Chief Greg Mullen said in a news conference, where he was flanked by community activists who have criticized the Police Department in the past. “I am tired of the death. I am tired of the hurt. I am tired of worrying every minute every day about who is going to be the next person killed in a police encounter.”

According to Mullen, leaders of the project will present a set of five goals and strategies to a citizen steering committee next week. The group will share those recommendations with the public during input sessions in August before taking them to council “hopefully in October,” Mullen said. From there, Mullen said he wants to have a “three-year strategy” in place that involves changes at the Police Department and community initiatives requiring community involvement.

“Most plans talk about what police can do,” Mullen said. “This plan will include what citizens can do actively to bridge those trust gaps.”

Mullen said the plan will include measurable benchmarks, and independent researchers at the College of Charleston will track progress toward those goals.

When asked if there would be any changes to police procedures for traffic stops or citizen encounters, Mullen said police would “look at those things.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity in there to look at what we’re already doing and assess what’s going on in other places,” Mullen said. “Certainly as we look at that and work with our community partners, if there is opportunity for change, that will certainly take place.”

The coming changes could also include legislative advocacy at a state and national level.

“We want our legislators to also be engaged in this and help us figure out what it is that the police should be doing and let us do that,” Mullen added. “And if there are things that we should not be doing, don’t tell us to do that.”

Gary Nestler, board chair of the Charleston Police Fund and chief financial backer of the Illumination Project, said the aim has been to build “bidirectional trust” between citizens and police. He said local leaders have been “invited to present at the White House” but declined to comment further on who extended the invitation, saying his focus is still on the local effort.

Ultimately, though, Nestler said the group’s intention is “to make this a scalable and repeatable model.”

“Our national government has seen what we have done. The president has been here. The president constantly talks about Charleston in these other places. So we feel that we have an obligation to give back at some point,” Nestler said.

The Charleston Police Department has already made a few changes in response to community input from the Illumination Project. New police recruits have been working with youth camps this summer, 90 percent of the department’s policies are now publicly available on the police department website, and the department is developing a four-hour Policing 101 course to help citizens understand its process and procedures.

Mayor John Tecklenburg spoke at the news conference about a need for “more than just getting together and holding hands” in the wake of violence.

“I believe, at the end of the day, that it will really build public safety, trust, and a tearing down of this wall that continues to exist between races and religions and between human beings in our society,” Tecklenburg said. “And that’s the ultimate goal.”

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or