After Walter Scott’s bullet-riddled body fell to the ground in April 2015, calls quickly followed for a citizens review board and a federal investigation to examine North Charleston’s policing practices.
Neither demand has come to fruition in a year’s time. Questions directed to the U.S. Department of Justice about the likelihood of a federal probe mostly have been met with silence. And the city has refused to entertain the idea of granting a community board investigative powers to oversee city officials and police.
“The mayor and the City Council is the review board. That’s what we’re elected to do,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey on why a board with subpoena powers was never created. “We welcome community input to give us concerns and ideas. But at the end of the day, we are the panel that’s representative of the entire city. We are willing to listen to anything they’ve got to say.”
Looking back, some community leaders said they can’t help but feel as though their pleas to reform a department saddled with allegations of racial profiling, aggressive policing and overuse of force have fallen on deaf ears.
“They’ve done absolutely nothing,” North Charleston NAACP head Ed Bryant said of the city’s administration in the wake of Scott’s death. “If they’ve done anything, please tell me, because I don’t know what it is.”
Community relations experts from the Justice Department have visited the city to hold talks with officials and residents. Justice had reported that it was looking for potential civil rights violations in Scott’s death. But an in-depth pattern-or-practice investigation into the city and Police Department has not occurred.
Bryant said an investigation is needed to shed light on the city’s inner workings and prevent misconduct.
In an interview, Summey said that he, the Police Department and the public have met with the Justice Department and that it continues to give the city ideas on how to move forward.
“They’re looking at our police practices and telling us if we need to change any of them and whether we need to tone some down or tone some up,” he said. “They’re going to be coming back at us with suggestions.”
Summey has repeatedly said that he would work on community relations between residents and police after Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was gunned down by a white officer as he fled a traffic stop.
But Bryant and other local activists pointed to the mayor as the reason why noticeable change and reforms aren’t apparent. They are convinced the mayor is the true power running the Police Department and that his resistance to change guarantees it won’t happen.
The Rev. Nelson Rivers, a local activist, praised Charleston County officials in February after they announced plans to lower incarceration rates and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. He questioned, though, whether the city of North Charleston would comply with the initiative, saying it “hands down” had been the least cooperative of the county’s four major law enforcement agencies during past talks of reform.
He placed the bulk of the blame on the city’s top official.
“It’s hard to have a tough conversation with Mayor Summey. He’s very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism,” Rivers said.
Summey disputed that.
“Name-calling solves no problems, and while Rev. Rivers may insist on talking, we have been acting,” Summey said. “Our Police Department has become a more community-focused agency over the past three years. Community initiatives are up, interaction with youth is up, and traffic stops are down.”
James Johnson of the National Action Network acknowledged that the number of traffic stops and citations issued by North Charleston police both showed drastic drops in the months after Scott’s death. In his opinion, that decrease had more to do with the city being “embarrassed” by worldwide scrutiny than any stated initiative or plan.
“Racial profiling is still a serious problem in North Charleston. I think, personally, the culture has not changed,” Johnson said. “The people who started this whole thing are still there. In order to change the culture, you have to change the administration.”
Johnson said his organization is “not going to give up” on its push for community involvement and an oversight board with subpoena powers.
“If the mayor really wanted to put (a citizens review board) together, he could have done it by now,” he said. “There’s always push-back from him. There’s always an angry tone coming from Summey. He’s shown in one year that he really doesn’t want to deal with reform.”
A community board is taking shape, according to Police Chief Eddie Driggers, but subpoena powers are not part of the discussion.
The city created a Community and Police Panel nearly a decade ago under then-Chief Jon Zumalt during the department’s first attempt to mend ties with alienated populations. That board was put on hold, however, shortly after Scott’s death as the city scrambled to figure out its next move. A similar panel of religious and neighborhood leaders has convened over the course of the year, but with little consequence.
Augustus Robinson Jr., pastor emeritus of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, served on both panels. In his view, the later group “has been productive,” though he conceded it’s “still in the infant stages. We have not really come together to come up with a bottom line on where we’re going and what we’re attempting to do.”
Generally speaking, the panel aims to unify the North Charleston community, Robinson said.
“Whether it’s police, our community business partners, education — we just want to be collaborative and bring everyone together,” he said.
The fact that Scott’s death didn’t trigger the sort of riots seen in other cities — such as Ferguson, Mo.; Baltimore; and New York — was evidence that some progress had been made in North Charleston in that regard, Robinson said.
“We can’t forget, our North Charleston city is still grieving. It’s really hard right now to be as productive as we would like to be because of that,” he said. “We’re not as far as we had hoped to be, but cautiously and prayerfully, we are accomplishing what I believe our goal would be in the future.”
Bryant, of the NAACP, said he doesn’t believe community panels have been effective on their own, and that isn’t the answer now.
“I don’t want you telling me after someone already got shot, beat up or thrown in jail. I don’t want to hear that, OK?” Bryant said. “If (the panels were) effective, why was Walter Scott shot in the back to begin with? Why? And what have you done since Walter Scott was shot in the back?”
A Justice Department investigation would have the “teeth” lacked by such panels, Bryant said.
North Charleston City Councilman Bob King said he welcomed any suggestions the Justice Department had to offer, saying he hoped something positive would come from it. It would help if those recommendations came soon, he said, so that the city could budget for potential expenses sooner rather than later.
“Whatever they recommend, I’m sure we’ll try to do,” he said.
It’s best that any recommended policy changes flow through an “impartial group” like the Justice Department, he added.
“When we met with (activists) before, they wanted to fire the chief of police. Well, we aren’t going to discuss that. ... They wouldn’t take it off the agenda,” King said.
If the Justice Department conducts a thorough investigation and reaches the same conclusion, he said, “we may need to look at that.”
Bill Stanfield, CEO of local nonprofit Metanoia, was interviewed in mid-March by the Justice Department. He told the agency he believed police have made some “steps in the right direction” to improve community relations.
Police partnered with Metanoia in July to kick off a “Positive Ticketing” initiative that encouraged officers to recognize the youth they saw displaying good behavior, such as picking up litter, volunteering at community events or wearing helmets while riding their bicycles. The tickets could then be exchanged for water park vouchers, meals at participating restaurants and other prizes.
Police also provided meals at Metanoia’s end-of-summer cookout, played football with the program’s children and encouraged the use of neighborhood resource officers who have become familiar faces in the city’s communities, Stanfield said.
Stanfield, who lives in North Charleston’s Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood, said he’s seen firsthand that city police “aren’t 100 percent good or 100 percent bad.”
He recalled some of Metanoia’s teens being stopped by police while walking on their way to work on “the pretense that they shouldn’t be out that early in the morning,” he said.
“Overall, I sense that the department is still evaluating an appropriate response,” Stanfield said of the city’s actions following Scott’s death.
City Councilman Michael Brown said he, too, believes the city is in the process of working out its issues.
Outside of community activists, Brown said the city’s residents haven’t been that vocal about their concerns in neighborhood and council meetings.
A town hall meeting hosted last month by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, however, drew more than 100 people to a North Charleston community center where they aired their grievances with the city and police. The group hosted the event as part an investigation it chose to conduct, instead of waiting for a federal probe.
“During the healing process there are voices to be heard on both sides,” Brown said. “It takes work on both sides — the city as a whole and also the community — for things to work out and get better. Everyone has to buy some ownership.”
Andrew Knapp contributed to this report. Reach Christina Elmore at 843-937-5908.