North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey is pressing through the largest crisis he has faced as mayor with quick action and a message that last week’s tragedy is the unfathomable mistake made by one man, not the policies of his city.
Despite calls for his resignation from protesters and questions about police tactics from religious leaders, Summey still plans to run for re-election this year. The race now is expected to be dominated by a video showing Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager firing fatally at the back of Walter Scott as he fled a traffic stop.
“I’ve already got opponents out there, and I’m sure they’re going to use this, but that’s fine,” Summey said. “I still have a lot of things I’d like to do.”
Scott’s death was thrust into the national spotlight as the latest example of white police officers shooting and killing unarmed blacks, but Summey said the city’s department has made great strides to shed its reputation for aggressive tactics in the black community — though he acknowledged there still is more to do.
“We will resolve the issues surrounding what happened,” he said, “but quite honestly, the gentleman dying was the result of a horrific decision by one officer — and I can’t get in his mind and tell you why.”
Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers sat down with The Post and Courier on Friday in the mayor’s spacious City Hall office as satellite trucks sat parked out his windows to recount what had happened and how they hoped to help the community heal.
As with their news conference earlier in the week — the one interrupted by a bullhorn-wielding protester calling for Summey’s resignation — the normally jovial mayor took the lead as the chief sat quietly next to him.
They recounted how on Tuesday, less than two hours after they first saw the video, both agreed on what needed to be done next. They called a news conference and announced Slager would be charged with murder.
The next day, Summey, the city’s mayor for 21 years, committed North Charleston to spending $129,000 on 150 more body cameras so all police officers would have one — even though City Council is supposed to approve all expenses of more than $25,000.
“I sent them (council members) a message. Nobody came up opposed to it,” Summey said. “I placed this as a potential situation like a hurricane, where I do have extended executive privileges. To me, this was a crisis moment for us.”
City Councilman Bob King, who has not been shy of criticizing Summey in the past, called the mayor’s decision justified in this case. “It’s a crisis for the city,” King said, “and we have to work together.”
Summey and Driggers said they also will review police policies for traffic stops — and possibly other changes — but there’s no timetable set.
A turbulent history
The city of North Charleston has grappled with rocky relations between its police and black community during much of the city’s 40-year history.
Tensions crested almost a decade ago, when the city’s murder rate shot up and landed North Charleston on a list with some of the nation’s most crime-stricken cities. Former Police Chief Jon Zumalt was hired in 2002 and won accreditation for the department and instituted a controversial series of new policies to reduce violent crime.
During that time, the city reached out to James Johnson, president of the local chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, in an effort to lower the crime rate, Johnson said.
“They had a crime problem and they were told to get me at the table,” he said. “From that day, the crime started decreasing simply because myself and the other community leaders engaged the community on what was going on and what they needed to do to get the crime out of their community.”
North Charleston, whose population is almost 50 percent black, hit a low in 2007, when it ranked as the nation’s seventh-most-dangerous city, according to the controversial “City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America.”
Five years later, however, the city didn’t even crack the top 100.
“Jon Zumalt did exactly what we brought him in to do,” Summey said. “We reduced the murder rate, but at the end of the day, we may have created some ill feelings in some segments of the community. I knew that (new Chief) Eddie (Driggers) would bring to the table a mixture of law enforcement, protecting our citizens, but he would do it in a way of caring for those people.”
But Johnson said he feels the racial profiling and aggressive policing didn’t stop, and people are still afraid of the police department.
“The culture didn’t change,” he said. “If the culture would have changed from the time Chief Zumalt left office (in 2013), we would not have this killing today. We would not have this. From the time Chief Zumalt left up until now, our office has been getting calls about police misconduct, using the n-word, stopping for no reason.”
He recognizes that Driggers, a former police chaplain, has tried to change the department’s approach by being more hands-on and visible in the community, “but the people he needs to reach and who need to trust him aren’t the people who are on the porch. It’s the people who are being called the n-word or being misused.”
City Councilwoman Dorothy Williams, whose district is largely black, said Driggers’ hiring sharply reduced the number of complaints she has heard about the police. “I’m 68 years old, and I came up during that time when there was a lot of prejudice out here,” she said. “If I had any inkling the mayor or chief were like that, I would be the one to bring that out.”
But Johnson said Driggers’ message did not come down to all his officers. “To me, this department has to be rebuilt right now,” he said. “After this, there’s going to be no trust.”
Summey and others have bristled at the notion that last week’s shooting shows any downward turn in the department.
“I can tell you today we are a kinder, gentler police department than we have been in recent years,” Summey said. “I think the way we’ve handled this has shown that.”
On Tuesday, the same day as the video went public showing Slager firing at Scott, voters went to the polls in Ferguson, Missouri, the town ripped by riots last year following a white officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
And change came: Ferguson’s voters turned out in heavier than usual numbers and increased the number of black City Council members to 50 percent.
It’s too early to tell if a similar political realignment will occur in North Charleston, but the Scott tragedy has opened a political window at an interesting time: The mayor and all 10 council seats are up for election this fall.
Kendra Stewart, a College of Charleston political science professor, said the election is far away enough for residents to mobilize, but not so far off that the memory of this shooting will fade.
“It could lead to some change,” she said. “Sometimes it takes an issue like this to make people aware that there could be a problem.”
Mayoral challenger and businessman Clifford Smith II met the family at a vigil before the tape surfaced, and he said the incident is now absolutely the No. 1 issue in the mayor’s race.
“It has really changed the landscape. I got a call from the BBC,” he said, adding he is concerned about other allegations of police misconduct. “Most of the police are really good guys, but these allegations really have to be addressed. The city is now on the defensive.”
The Rev. Nelson Rivers III of Charity Missionary Baptist Church said he hopes Scott’s death will lead to changes in how North Charleston’s police interact with African-Americans.
While he praised the city’s swift response in the wake of the Scott shooting, he said that “does not wipe away what North Charleston was and is,” and it remains to be seen whether last week will prove to be a watershed moment.
“We pray this is what this is but we don’t know,” he said. “This community needs healing. ... We’ve already had pressure. It’s time to bring more pressure.”
Prentiss Findlay contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771. Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713.