Driggers faces defining moment as police chief

Before the bystander’s cellphone video had been made public, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers (left) and Mayor Keith Summey announced that police officer Michael Slager would be charged with murder in shooting of Walter Scott. The news conference was in North Charleston’s City Hall, which would soon become a focal point for international attention.

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers has a reputation as an affable, compassionate man with a keen sense of right and wrong, but some question whether that will be enough to lead his department through the biggest challenge it has ever faced.

Driggers, who came out of retirement from law enforcement two years ago to become North Charleston’s top cop, finds himself under national scrutiny in the wake of Walter Scott’s shooting earlier this month.

He received good marks for his condemnation of the 50-year-old black man’s death at the hands of a white police officer. But his work has only just begun as Driggers attempts to guide the embattled department toward what one city official called “a new normal.”

It’s a job that goes well beyond keeping the city’s streets peaceful as the judicial case against Scott proceeds. Driggers will guide the department as all officers start wearing body cameras and as it engages the community in a frank discussion about its policies and procedures.

His challenge also involves tackling a problem that existed long before Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager was videotaped firing eight shots at Scott as he ran from a traffic stop: improving trust and cooperation between the police and those they serve.

That goal, which has only been made more challenging by Scott’s killing, has been thwarted for decades by complaints of racial profiling, harassment and excessive force that have shaped the department’s reputation, some North Charleston residents said.

For them, Scott’s death wasn’t an outlier, but indicative of what those who know and live on the city’s streets have been saying for years.

Driggers had already begun chipping away at the issue. Since taking over as police chief in 2013, Driggers has reached out to the community by meeting with activists, sponsoring youth athletic programs and other activities. But some have questioned whether that is enough to impart the sort of sweeping change that many residents believe is needed.

Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Driggers’ current job caps a lengthy law enforcement career that began as a patrolman on North Charleston’s streets in 1975. He went on to work for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy before returning to the North Charleston Police Department as its leader.

As befitting Driggers’ status as an Episcopal deacon, his leadership style is to de-emphasize himself, or to put his role in a larger perspective.

“I’m just a part of that cog in the machine,” he said in an interview shortly after the Scott shooting. “Everybody always says, ‘How do you do your job?’ I say I do my job because I’m 343-strong. Sworn. There are over 400 men and women who work here at the city of North Charleston, and they all have the same goal — to serve and protect.”

As president of the Charleston NAACP, Dot Scott has been as vocal a critic as North Charleston police has encountered in recent years.

But Dot Scott, who lives in North Charleston, said she does not think Slager’s shooting of Scott reflects poorly on the chief’s leadership.

“I think it’s unfortunate it happened on his watch,” she said. “It sits on his table because these are the people that he’s more or less responsible for their behavior. I think that’s the extent that it goes.”

David Thomas, a senior research fellow with the Police Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that studies how police can improve, has looked at how several police departments have handled a crisis moment like the Slager case.

Thomas, himself a former police officer, said Driggers and the city’s leadership “did an excellent job,” in part because they acted quickly to announce Slager would be charged with murder.

“When you look at a lot of these other cases, it seems like the department and the prosecutor’s office hide behind statute because they’re afraid to make a decision,” he said. “They were very decisive with what they did, and I have to support them on that.”

He added that the cellphone video helped make the case “pretty clear cut. In other cases, you don’t have video, so you have to follow the evidence,” he said.

City Councilman Ron Brinson also gave the chief a high mark for his leadership in response to the incident.

“From what I see, he’s very much leading from the front. He’s showing a lot of compassion,” he said. “I don’t see why anyone would question his leadership today as a result of how he’s acted so far.”

Several of the residents the chief has sworn to protect and serve, however, weren’t so quick to sing his praises.

One young man walking along Rivers Avenue on a recent afternoon described Driggers as “irrelevant” in controlling the actions of individual officers that he alleged were “terrorizing” communities in the area. He refused to identify himself for fear of being harassed by police.

“He ain’t handling it worth a nickel, if you ask me,” said another man, Nathan Johnson.

The 59-year-old was born and raised in North Charleston’s predominantly black Ten Mile community. He recently spoke of Driggers and his experiences with the city’s police department while chatting with five other men of a similar age who had gathered beneath a bay of trees in the neighborhood.

“It all starts from the top,” Johnson said, saying Driggers ultimately is responsible for the actions of his officers.

Johnson said he wasn’t impressed by Driggers while watching news conferences on television in the days after Scott’s death. The chief’s voice had quivered during statements in the week after the shooting, and he occasionally appeared on the verge of tears as he addressed local and national reporters.

“He couldn’t even talk,” Johnson said. “The mayor had to talk for him.”

The others with Johnson said they weren’t even certain what Driggers looked like. They said they didn’t believe he made much of an effort to get to know residents in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods.

The police department is about 18 percent black in a city that is 45 percent black.

If more training on community and race relations is needed in that department, Johnson said, it’s Driggers’ responsibility to make that happen.

“Quit stereotyping,” another man said.

He, like the rest of the group, refused to identify himself for fear of police retaliation.

“Once they know who you are, they’ll start gunning for you,” he said. “They harass when you talk against them.”

The man described watching officers ignore a group of white men who were hanging out on a nearby street, choosing instead to focus their attention on black men who were standing nearby.

Interactions with police often escalate, he said, because of the attitudes of the officers when approaching black residents.

“They don’t know how to talk to people,” he said, “but they’ve got to at least respect you for being a human, don’t they? That’s what I was taught.”

Driggers met or exceeded all expectations set for him over the last two years, according to personnel evaluations that rated his work ethic, knowledge of the job, judgment, leadership skills and other qualities. The evaluations, conducted by the mayor’s office, were released last week by the city of North Charleston in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier.

City officials who have watched the chief have said they welcomed his approach, which they described as a personable one.

Brinson said he was concerned when former Chief Jon Zumalt left abruptly. His tenure was marked by a decrease in the city’s crime rate but a rise in complaints that the police presence and their tactics were too aggressive, particularly in minority neighborhoods.

Driggers has helped ease such complaints, Brinson said. “I have actually seen him resolve some neighborhood concerns or issues by going and knocking on the door, so he’s out there,” Brinson said.

Lt. Dan Isgett of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, who oversees the county’s Community Liaison unit, knows Driggers from the chief’s time at the county.

“He cares deeply for people, whether it’s law enforcement officers or the victims’ families, no matter who it is,” Isgett said. “He takes it personally, but he’s the right man at the right time at the right place for this. I feel that he’s got the right combination of skills to handle this situation.”

Brinson said that empathy will help Driggers in the months ahead.

“The next challenge for Chief Driggers is to make sure, with this new normal, he provides the kind of leadership to keep this moving forward,” Brinson said. “And I think he’s up to it. You can’t have too much empathy in a situation like this, and I think his men and women recognize the value of that.”

While Driggers is warm and personable in a small group, he can appear uncomfortable while speaking in public, such as at the news conferences immediately following Scott’s death.

He declined an interview request for this story.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said Driggers’ unease with public speaking is part of the job.

“When you know you don’t have the answers to a lot of the questions that are likely to be asked, it makes any of us uncomfortable,” Cannon said.

Sharing certain information can affect potential witness statements as an investigation continues. “Those sorts of things make it really complicated, and quite frankly, police departments around the country are struggling with that because the normal process is one that takes some time if you are going to be as thorough as you need to be,” he said.

And there is the issue of the city’s rising crime rate.

Last year, North Charleston again led the region in homicides, three years after posting its lowest murder rate in decades, an achievement attributed in part to the aggressive policing instituted by Driggers’ predecessor, Chief Jon Zumalt. Last year, the city had 22 killings, up from 16 deaths in 2013, 13 in 2012 and five in 2011.

Driggers said all but two of those slain knew their killer in some way, and illegal drugs played a part in some killings, as did gangs. The increase also matched a larger trend in a rising number of murders across the region.

Driggers has said he hasn’t seen any overall trends emerge to explain the violence, and about 1 percent of the city’s population is causing most of the problems.

“These crimes are committed by the same people — most of them in the criminal element — over and over,” he said in an interview late last year. “We need to start blaming the people responsible for these things and not taking it out on the entire population.”

Latorcha Montgomery of James Island estimated that she has been stopped as many as 10 times by North Charleston police in recent years, including at least one instance where she felt she was racially profiled, perhaps because she drove a BMW.

“To be honest with you, because of all the things that are currently happening, I try to take different routes to get to where I need to go so I wouldn’t have to go in the heart of North Charleston,” she said. “I’ve been doing that the past five years.”

A middle-age white man who lives in North Charleston’s Ashley Heights neighborhood welcomed the idea of the city’s police force being outfitted with body cameras, but he said that alone wouldn’t be enough to change the department for the better. “Fire all their asses — the chief too,” he said. The man refused to identify himself, citing fears of future harassment.

“They’ve got too many young ones over there who just got out of the service,” he said. “All they know is toting a gun.”

Paul Pinckney Jr., a 75-year-old lifelong resident of North Charleston’s Accabee neighborhood, said he’s maintained a low profile and stayed away from criminal activity to avoid having a bad encounter with the city’s police department.

“When you see them rough handling the young ones, it can look pretty bad,” he said. But he added that sometimes officers have no choice but to be aggressive for the sake of maintaining control.

Questions of force aside, Pinckney said he appreciated the consistent patrols the officers made in his neighborhood to improve safety.

“Back in the day, the only time police would come around here was if they were whipping heads,” he said.

Dot Scott said the Walter Scott shooting raises the question of how the North Charleston Police Department can rid itself of the bad apples.

“I really believe it’s just a few of them,” she said. “I don’t think in any way this is a mind-set of the majority of these officers, but it’s a culture we have allowed to breed at this point.”

Dot Scott said she would like to see a citizens review board not “handpicked with cheerleaders” to improve transparency.

Whether it’s a citizens review board, policy changes or more community outreach, Mayor Keith Summey said the city’s main crime-fighting challenge is convincing residents to trust and work with police when they know someone is breaking the law.

“People are fearful of giving us information because they’re fearful of retaliation,” Summey said. “Everything that happens in this community, somebody knows about it. It’s getting them to tell us about it that’s the difficult part.”

Summey said he would like to see more families stand up to their children much like the city stood up to Slager after he shot Walter Scott.

“We need families to stand up to kids and say, ‘You’re wrong,’ and if they can’t get them to work out, let us get engaged to try to help them change before it’s too late,” Summey said. “A slap on the hand could lead to the saving of a life.”

Brenda Rindge contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771. Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908.