Federal probe possibilities: North Charleston investigation could follow Ferguson

A still from a video of a shooting in North Charleston shows North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager, 33, fire at 50-year-old Walter Scott as he runs away. Scott died Saturday from his injuries. Slager was arrested on a murder charge Tuesday after the video surfaced from a then-anonymous source.

If the U.S. Department of Justice conducts a civil rights investigation prompted by Saturday’s killing of an unarmed black man by a North Charleston police officer, it will likely follow the pattern of other high-profile cases, including the recently completed federal probe in Ferguson, Mo.

In the Ferguson case, the Justice Department launched a two-pronged investigation after a white policeman killed an unarmed black man in August: One into the actions of the shooter, police officer Darren Wilson; and another into allegations of illegal racial profiling on the part of the Ferguson Police Department and other Ferguson agencies.

The Justice Department has traced a similar path in some of the more than 20 investigations into civil rights violations by law enforcement agencies around the nation in the past five years.

In the North Charleston case, a separate investigation into the shooting of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott, who was running away from Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, might not be seen as necessary as it was in Ferguson. That’s because Slager was charged with murder and jailed three days after the killing. The murder charge came shortly after a video showed Scott running away from Slager as the officer shot at him eight times until the fleeing man’s knees buckled and he collapsed, face down in the dirt, with five bullets in the back.

The Justice Department did not reply to an email inquiry Thursday about whether a civil rights probe would be launched into the North Charleston case or what its procedures would be in such an investigation.

A federal probe could involve possible civil rights violations by Slager in Scott’s killing. And that killing almost certainly would play a part in any larger Justice investigation of long-held resentment that North Charleston police unfairly detain, arrest and harass blacks, black men in particular.

Those sentiments arose out of an effort by North Charleston to curb its unsavory reputation nine years ago as one of America’s most dangerous cities. The city’s police department adopted a policy of aggressive patrolling, zero tolerance of minor violations and seemingly random interviews with residents. The aggressive patrols focused on the city’s highest crime areas, mainly predominately black neighborhoods.

It’s a policy that was credited with a dramatic reduction in crime in New York City. But both there and in North Charleston such police tactics breed resentment and complaints about harassment.

The Post and Courier investigated such allegations against North Charleston in 2012.

The newspaper discovered that in the four years after 2008, when the department’s aggressive tactics reached full swing, 120 complaints were filed. The newspaper found that “of the 89 that indicated the race of the complainant and the primary officer involved, 62 percent were black people complaining about white officers.”

Nevertheless, Mayor Keith Summey and then-Police Chief Jon Zumalt insisted that the tactics worked.

They said the effort had cut murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in 20 targeted neighborhoods by almost two-thirds, and by 2010 the number of killings fell to five.

Summey said at the time that the aggressive enforcement focus on black communities was logical because 83 percent of all people arrested are black, even though only 47 percent of the city’s population is black.

Black community leaders say that aggressive enforcement remains largely unchanged. And that likely would be the focus of any civil rights investigation of the North Charleston’s Police Department.

In the case of Ferguson, a Justice Department report says it spent about 100 days observing police and court practices, and attending some sessions of municipal court. The department analyzed police data on stops, searches and arrests, and evaluated court data. It also met with neighborhood associations and advocacy groups, and interviewed city, police and court officials, including the Ferguson police chief and his command staff.

Last month, the Justice Department announced its findings:

In the case of Officer Darren Wilson who killed Michael Brown, the department said the evidence “does not support federal civil rights charges” against him.

But Justice officials found that “the Ferguson Police Department ... engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the First, Fourth, and 14th amendments of the Constitution.

The report also found that the town focused police and court efforts more on collecting money than public safety.

Justice and Ferguson officials now are working to institute necessary changes.

That’s similar to the agreements the Justice Department has made with 15 of the other law enforcement agencies it has investigated, including the New Orleans and Albuquerque police departments.