Charleston police chief wants to illuminate community relationships

Officer Brian Ambrose greets Michael Wrighten at Second Presbyterian Church Feb. 2 during a meeting of the Charleston Illumination Project, a way for the faith community to have better relations between police and residents.

Tony Cretella wants people to know there is more to him than the blue uniform he dons for work as a Charleston police sergeant. He’s also a dad, a husband and an avid runner who enjoys half-marathons.

He sees himself as a regular guy with many of the same hopes and aspirations as the people he is sworn to protect.

Nursing administrator Debbie Bryant grew up seeing her brothers stopped, questioned and harassed by police in Berkeley County simply because they were young and black. So she had a much different take-away when she met Cretella at a forum in Charleston.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know Tony. I just see a man with a gun,” she told him. “And being a man with a gun, you can make a decision to shoot me. It can end up in a dangerous situation. That makes me worried.”

Bryant’s admission surprised Cretella. He’d been a cop for more than 10 years with a clean record and a reputation for helping others. Still, if she felt that way, might not others have a similar reaction? And what might he and his fellow officers do to help change those negative perceptions? These sorts of discussions — frank, complicated and constructive — are at the heart of an innovative and challenging initiative underway in Charleston that’s aimed at strengthening trust and ties between the community and its police force. The “Illumination Project” is a yearlong effort that seeks to build on the unity and goodwill that emerged after the Emanuel AME Church shooting that left nine dead in June.

The conversation comes at time when the nation is struggling to find the balance between public safety and civil rights. Hard questions about law enforcement tactics have swirled in the wake of racially charged episodes in North Charleston, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities where unarmed black men have died at the hands of police. The killings have sparked unrest, division and soul searching.

Those involved in the Illumination Project have stepped into this breach in hope of finding common ground and understanding somewhere between the polarizing points that frame the debate.

Bryant sits on a 24-member steering group for the project, which is being underwritten by private and public contributions to the nonprofit Charleston Police Fund. The group also includes school workers, former cops, community activists, a criminal defense lawyer, a construction company CEO and others. They’ve been meeting since October, exploring mutual bonds, hidden biases and a host of different perspectives on policing as they prepare for larger community forums in the months to come.

This week, the process expands to include meetings with some 70 community leaders who, in turn, will assist with “listening sessions” with the public scheduled for the spring. The idea is draw input from a wide swath of Charleston that will help form the framework for a plan of action. These won’t be open mic sessions where people just complain or compliment, but working discussions focused on solutions.

“We want to go broad and deep,” said Margaret Seidler, a consultant working with the group. “We are building this bridge as we are walking on it.”

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and his commanders already have done some tweaking of policies and procedures based on the group’s discussions. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t want this to be a feel-good exercise that leads to nothing more than a fat report that gathers dust on a shelf.

“This is about getting something done,” Mullen said. “If we can implement things right away that have an immediate impact, we will. We’re not going to wait around until the end.”

Mullen had long pondered how to bridge the disconnect he’s witnessed at times between police and the citizens they serve. Why, for instance, did kids in the department’s Camp Hope for at-risk youth cozy up to officers during the day and then run away when police visited their neighborhoods in the evening? Were their parents teaching them to distrust police? Or was something deeper at work?

City officials have spoken with pride about the professionalism of the city’s police force and its ability to hold the line on violent crime. But some have questioned the tactics employed to do so. The NAACP, for example, has long complained that young black men tend to get pulled over more often than their white counterparts and are more likely to end up in jail for similar offenses. Who is right? Or do both views have merit, depending on how you look at them?

Mullen felt the time was ripe to begin this discussion after the Emanuel shooting. Many feared the city would erupt in violence after the killing of nine black worshippers by a white supremacist. Yet the opposite happened. People came together in grief and solidarity. Police were praised for the quick apprehension of the gunman and the lengths to which authorities went to accommodate mourners and protestors alike. Police, in turn, praised the community for remaining calm, peaceful and respectful. The event showed Charleston at its best and offered a new starting point to build from.

Mullen enlisted the support of then-Mayor Joe Riley and the Charleston Police Fund, which raises money for police training, equipment and outreach that’s not included in the department’s tax-supported budget. The fund agreed to provide $120,000 for the initiative. Fund chairman Gary Nestler said he sees the potential for the project to become a national model, and College of Charleston researchers will be compiling hard data on the project’s initiatives to measure their success.

“I think there will be some surprises, some shockers in there along the way, but at the end of the day we will end up with a qualitative way to ensure change,” he said.

The funds allowed the city to hire Seidler and her team of experts in “polarity thinking.” They help guide the conversation from the standpoint that divergent viewpoints are deserving of respect and legitimacy. The idea is to get groups to explore, understand and appreciate views and values different from their own so that a common path might emerge to lead from contention to consensus.

The city previously employed this approach in crafting a plan for its entertainment district that would balance the need for a thriving nightlife scene while promoting diverse businesses and protecting neighborhood quality of life.

Not everyone was initially sold on the concept. Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, wasn’t invited to a September news conference to announce the initiative, leading her to question whether city leaders were trying to exclude those who had been critical of police treatment of black men.

Project officials assured her that wasn’t the case, and she met at length with Mullen to discuss the initiative. She said she remains concerned about racial profiling and other police tactics, but is cautiously optimistic that something good is going to come out of the group’s effort.

“I am being hopeful because it’s no good not to be,” she said. “I’m glad folks understand there are some problems and are willing to address it and say there are some problems. I am totally supportive of the mission and the goal, and hopefully it’s going to make things better for this city.”

The Rev. John Paul Brown, an AME pastor who sits on the committee, said he too has had deep concerns about the treatment of minorities by law enforcement. But he said he senses that Charleston police officials are innovative and willing to change, and it’s important for the black community to have a voice in that process.

“We can’t do that on the outside looking in,” he said. “We have to be at the table.”

During a recent meeting, Brown and other participants went through a scenario in which police are called to a home after a neighbor spots two black men trying to force their way in the door. Police arrive and find an older black man in the foyer. They demand that he step outside but he refuses. The situation escalates.

Did the neighbor show bias in calling police? It could have been a burglary, after all. But what if the men had just lost their keys? Did the older man overreact in refusing to step outside? But what fears might he have harbored from previous encounters with police? What fears for their own safety might the officers have shared upon encountering the hostile man?

The scenario, based on a 2009 incident in Massachusetts that led to the arrest of scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., led to a spirited discussion about the biases, large and small, that people carry and the shared responsibility police and citizens hold in whether such encounters go smoothly or poorly.

Cretella and another officer said that Charleston police have a strict policy requiring officers to be courteous and respectful when stopping citizens. When making a traffic stop, officers are expected to introduce themselves, explain the reason for the stop, detain the motorist no longer than necessary and politely answer the driver’s questions.

But Edward Jones, a community activist from the city’s East Side, said the gap between that protocol and reality is wide in his neighborhood. “I see it day to day and I can tell you, it’s not like that,” he said. “We see a different sort of policeman there.”

Mullen pledged to talk with his troops, to make sure protocol was being followed. But he also questioned whether it would be helpful for citizens like Jones to better understand the various responsibilities different officers have when they work in a neighborhood.

Committee members suggested that police do more to publicize the citizens academy the department offers to acquaint civilians with its methods. They also suggested that police do more to educate people about what expectations officers and citizens should have of one another during an encounter.

Mullen jumped on the ideas and is working to bring both to fruition as well as create a four-hour course to introduce citizens to the workings of the police department. He also decided to have more officers cycle through the committee to establish “human” relationships with those involved and hear their concerns first-hand.

Scott Schools, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney, said serving on the committee has been eye-opening for everyone and they have been pleased to see Mullen’s willingness to address suggestions as the process unfolds.

Bryant, the nursing administrator, agreed. Like other panelists, she has been forced to confront biases and perceptions formed over a lifetime of experiences. But a desire to see change come from the Emanuel tragedy drives her to participate in the process.

“For me, it’s about the journey moving beyond hurt and anger to get to a place where all are treated fairly and all are safe.”