Chief Driggers to critics: 'Stop talking, come work with me'

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers high-fives students in an after-school reading group March 22 at the Felix Pinckney Community Center.

Eddie Driggers cocks his head at the sound of his name and smiles broadly at the four men waving to him from the yard of a weathered home bathed in the waning light of a spring afternoon in North Charleston.

“Y’all have about the best seat in the house,” Driggers bellows as he strides toward the group of old-timers, a police radio bobbing from his slacks.

They chuckle as he greets them with a warm round of handshakes.

A tall, hefty man with a salt-and-pepper moustache and a measured drawl, Driggers comes across more as a kindly grandfather than as leader of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in South Carolina — a police force at the center of a national firestorm.

For the past year, Driggers has been something of an enigma to an outside world trying to understand how one of his officers came to gun down an unarmed black man, shooting him five times from behind as he ran away.

Walter Scott’s killing sparked a massive outcry, resulting in protests, demands for a federal inquiry and calls for Driggers to be stripped of his job.

Driggers, a cop for 41 years, condemned Officer Michael Slager’s actions, saying he became physically ill watching a bystander’s video of the shooting. But since that day in April 2015 when he announced Slager’s arrest on a murder charge, Driggers has largely avoided the public eye, making few official statements, declining media interviews and letting Mayor Keith Summey and others speak for the department at press conferences, forums or other large gatherings.

This has led some critics to question his leadership abilities and commitment to opening the department’s practices to public scrutiny, as city officials pledged to do in the aftermath of the Scott death.

“We need someone who can talk to the community instead of hiding and worrying about angering the community,” said James Johnson, president of South Carolina chapters of the National Action Network.

But those close to Driggers say he has hardly been in hiding. He spends a great deal of time in the community, talking with residents, listening to their concerns and getting feedback about the department, they say. There’s no fanfare, no television cameras — just regular folks and Driggers, who grew up in this town, pumped gas here as a teen and walked a beat in its rougher quarters when he became a cop some four decades ago.

“He’s doing a good job,” said Willie Hart, one of the four men Driggers stops to chat with that afternoon in the Liberty Hill neighborhood. “He just knows how to talk to people. And he knows how to listen, too.”

Driggers, who is also an Episcopal deacon and former crisis chaplain, said he prefers these one-on-one interactions to pontificating in front of a microphone. It’s just who he is. People should not mistake his silence for inaction, or his compassion for weakness, he said during a recent sit-down with The Post and Courier, his first in-depth interview since the Scott shooting.

“I’m just not sure standing in the forefront talking about issues does much to solve the problems we’re having. I do believe actions, in the end, speak louder than words,” he said. “I think there are enough people talking and not enough people doing. Stop talking and come work with me.”

The past year has been difficult. He doesn’t deny that. He insists that the North Charleston Police Department is full of dedicated officers who deserve the public’s respect for working hard every day to serve and protect the state’s third-largest city. But he also understands the anger and revulsion over Scott’s killing, the need for answers and justice.

Driggers said he hasn’t spoken to Slager since his arrest and has no desire to. He knows some in his department have a different view and have stood by Slager, showing up in court and writing letters of support in his successful quest for bail. Driggers has no plans to interfere with that. People have a right to express themselves, to stand by their friends in tough times, he said.

“I think an individual has to be tolerant,” he said. “The Police Department is a product of the community and so there are going to be differences of opinion. Just because we have differences of opinion doesn’t mean we can’t work them out and work together.”

Driggers said he has relied heavily on prayer to help him through this time. He prays for the men and women on the force. He prays for the community. He prays for the wisdom and strength to guide his department.

“We are growing through this,” he said. “I don’t know if I will ever push (the shooting) from my mind. But if I don’t learn something from a bad day, then it’s still a bad day. If I don’t grow through my worst day, then it will continue to be my worst day.”

Driggers, 63, came out of retirement in 2013 to become North Charleston’s top cop, assuming the helm of a department that had struggled for years with complaints of racial profiling, harassment and excessive force.

His predecessor, Jon Zumalt, modernized the department and took an aggressive approach to curbing violent crime after North Charleston landed in the mid-2000s on a list of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Zumalt’s strategy cut the crime rate, but it also led to complaints of civil rights intrusions, particularly against black residents, who account for nearly half the city’s population.

When Zumalt retired, Summey passed on a national search for a new chief and instead tapped Driggers, a hometown product who began his lengthy law enforcement career as a patrolman on North Charleston’s streets in 1975. Summey said his Christian approach to policing was what the city needed.

A soft-spoken, affable man with a penchant for meeting detractors with hugs, Driggers set to work trying to mend fences with the community. He met with activists, visited crime scenes, oversaw an effort to place officers in every school and started a Powder Puff football program to give teen girls something positive to do.

Then the Scott shooting happened, threatening to derail the quiet progress he had overseen. Soon after, activists like James Johnson called for his resignation.

Driggers said he doesn’t resent those who want him gone, but he has no intention of leaving. He said he still has work to do, and he believes he has the community’s support.

“I think it’s a difficult time for law enforcement right now. But what I hear all the time is that more people respect what we do and want us to continue doing it,” he said. “The radio is still going off. People are still calling us for help. And as long as they call, we are going to continue to respond.”

Summey said he has been impressed by Driggers’ leadership in the wake of the Scott shooting. Though he doesn’t relish the limelight, Driggers is a workhorse determined to do the best job he can, he said.

“I think he’s done great. To be honest with you, when this happened, it was good to have a person of Eddie’s character in that position,” the mayor said. “People were able to see that it was hard on him. He’s been through a lot of stress, not just from the community, but stress he has put on himself. He wants to make sure that not only do we look good, but we are good.”

Not everyone has been impressed.

Local civil rights activists have been frustrated with a perceived lack of reform in the department following Scott’s death. No sweeping policy changes have been enacted, their demands for a citizen review board have been rebuffed and they’ve seen little follow-through on pledges from city leaders to open up police practices for scrutiny.

Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, said she was pleased to see North Charleston police scale back on traffic stops that many had complained were unfairly targeting minorities. But to date, efforts to address deeper problems in the Police Department have been little more than “window dressing,” with the process unfolding behind closed doors with little public input, she said.

In contrast, Scott said, police in neighboring Charleston are in the midst of an ambitious, yearlong project to solicit public input on policing practices and find ways to strengthen trust with the community. “You don’t see that with North Charleston,” she said.

Driggers seems to be a good man with good intentions, Scott said, but the community needs to hear from him and be assured that change is coming.

“He hasn’t given you a window to look through and gauge what he is doing,” she said. “If ever a city needs a police chief with a strong presence, it’s North Charleston. But we still don’t see that.”

Driggers insists that work is progressing on retooling the citizen advisory board that works with police. Department officials have been meeting with select community leaders and a U.S. Department of Justice representative to make that happen. The group won’t be an investigative panel with subpoena powers to examine police actions, as some have demanded. But officials hope the panel will be an engaged group that provides valuable insight and input into the department’s efforts.

Justice Department officials have had no public comment on the effort, but Driggers and Summey say their suggestions have been helpful. More on that front will become apparent as the group takes shape, Driggers said. “I’m not much for putting things out there just to make people feel good about themselves,” he said. “It’s about putting together a productive group that is going to serve the population of this city.”

In the meantime, Driggers has launched “spotlight walks” in which and he other police officials visit neighborhoods around the city to introduce themselves, listen to concerns and look for ways to work with residents to improve the quality of life. He also holds “front porch visits” where folks can invite him over to their homes for a chat.

Anjene Davis, president of the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Association, said Driggers has been a regular, welcome presence in the struggling, low-income area where “a lot of people ... still feel heavily impacted by negative police relations” after Scott’s death.

“At least from the standpoint of him recognizing his responsibility as an ambassador of the Police Department to the community, he does understand that role,” Davis said. “It’s a complex position that comes with a lot of baggage that he inherited. But he does understand the significance of fostering positive relationships. I give him props for that.”

Maybe so, Johnson of the National Action Network said, but that’s just not enough. Front porch chats are nice, but North Charleston needs a chief who will get under the hood, overhaul a police culture that has tolerated the mistreatment of minorities and make it clear racial profiling won’t be tolerated, he said. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and others have repeatedly asked the Justice Department to conduct a civil rights investigation of the North Charleston Police Department. So far, Justice hasn’t responded.

Driggers said no such investigation is underway and he doesn’t anticipate one on the horizon. But either way, police will keep answering calls, making arrests and doing their best to lock up criminals. They can only keep moving forward and doing their jobs, he said.

“There are a whole lot of eyes on police right now, but I believe that law enforcement truly tries to do what is right. Are we perfect? No. But we try to do our best every day,” he said. “If you call, law enforcement is coming. Who else gives you that guarantee in life?”

Andrew Knapp contributed to this report.