Some local leaders absent from discussion on Charleston-area discrimination, police practices

The Rev. Charles Heyward, from St. James Presbyterian Church, gives the vision statement for the fourth annual Charleston Area Justice Ministry Nehemiah Action Assembly held at Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

Eleven public officials from North Charleston were invited to a gathering Monday night to discuss racial discrimination and police practices. One city councilman attended.

Thousands of people turn out every year for the Nehemiah Action Assembly, where public officials are confronted by the interfaith Charleston Area Justice Ministry about issues such as youth unemployment, juvenile incarceration and wage theft.

This year was no exception as about 2,000 people filled the sanctuary at Mount Moriah Baptist Church on Rivers Avenue. The Justice Ministry tackled racial discrimination and called for the North Charleston and Charleston police departments to reduce the practice of investigatory stops and hire an external, independent police auditor to produce a one-time audit of the departments’ policing practices.

The only North Charleston public official at the event was City Councilman Mike Brown, who said he has been on the job 15 weeks. Of the dozen or so Charleston officials invited to the assembly, five showed up, including Mayor John Tecklenburg.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen didn’t attend.

“Their absence speaks volumes of their promise to racial reconciliation,” said the Rev. Charles Heyward, from St. James Presbyterian Church.

Summey and Driggers announced prior to the event that they would not be there because they disagreed with the group’s approach.

Officials at the event were asked a series of “yes” and “no” questions that essentially committed them to supporting the Justice Ministry’s initiatives for change. They then were each given 30 seconds to respond with an explanation. The group met with participating officials to discuss their proposals weeks before the assembly and provided them with a summary of the questions so they weren’t surprised on stage.

Heyward said the process works and pointed out the success of previous years. After the first assembly in 2013, all four local law enforcement agencies agreed to implement the state’s only “risk assessment instrument” to curtail nonviolent juvenile incarceration. Last year, the ministry convinced Charleston County Council to fund a wage-recovery program for low-income workers that went into effect in August.

“Through CAJM’s process, we have demonstrated transparency,” he said.

Over the past six months, 220 Justice Ministry members volunteered more than 15,000 hours conducting 30 research visits with local and national sources to better understand racial discrimination and identify best practices, according to the group.

The group found that Charleston and North Charleston police officers, respectively, stop people at four times the rate of Columbia officers. North Charleston led the state in “pretext” or “investigatory” stops, in which officers use a minor violation to stop and question someone they think might be involved in a more serious crime.

Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white North Charleston police officer while fleeing from a traffic stop that stemmed from a broken tail light. Former officer Michael Slager was charged with murder in the shooting. The case became a touchstone in the national debate over how police treat African-Americans.

North Charleston police made 130,000 stops without an arrest or citation from 2011 to 2015, according Justice Ministry data. The Charleston Police Department was a close second with 127,000 stops. Columbia, the largest city in the state, had 33,000 stops during the same years, according to the data.

Tecklenburg declined the Justice Ministry’s request to direct the police chief to participate with them in developing a plan to reduce investigatory stops. He said he didn’t believe investigatory stops were the same thing as police stops and that agreeing to reduce them would mean not enforcing the law or directing police to give a ticket at every stop.

“We will work with you to reduce racial discrimination, sir, I assure you,” he said. “Respectfully, I believe it’s not the stops, it’s the way that people have been treated in the past that’s wrong.”

Half of the four city councilmen agreed to champion most of the Justice Ministry’s requests to the best of their abilities. Brown, of North Charleston, agreed to everything — to the extent that his job allows — except for a one-time independent audit of current biased-based policing practices.

“An audit doesn’t do anything but reveal what we already know,” he said. “We all know that there’s a problem; an audit is not going to solve it.”

Cary Richardson of North Charleston attended the assembly and said he appreciated the turnout but wanted to hear from more public officials.

“To have 100,000-plus stops ... that’s crazy, so there is something wrong,” he said. “It would have been so much more productive if the officials would have come out and heard what they had to say. If it was election time, they would have been out here.”

Roberta Boatti criticized the Justice Ministry’s style of questioning, noting that there was a process public officials had to go through to commit to anything but said she enjoyed the discussion.

“I think it’s important to because it brings the community together, and I think it’s righteous,” the Johns Island resident said.

The assembly also addressed school-based arrests, noting that Charleston County School District locked up almost 13 percent of 10- to 16-year-olds. Of the arrests, 96 percent were for nonviolent offenses, they said.

Four school board members agreed to working on a plan to implement restorative practices in the schools, among other things, and attend a Justice Ministry gathering in the fall to report on progress.

Reach Melissa Boughton at 843-937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.