N. Charleston police ask for federal scrutiny

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers (right) and Mayor Keith Summey, seen last year at a vigil for police shooting victim Walter Scott, have asked a Justice Department office to analyze the Police Department and help usher in reforms.

North Charleston on Thursday asked the Department of Justice to do an independent, three-year analysis of its police force, a move city officials hope will restore trust lost a year ago after the shooting death of Walter Scott.

Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers told The Post and Courier that they want the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to take a top-to-bottom look at the police, identify what’s working and what isn’t, and make extensive recommendations.

“We’re opening it up,” Summey said of the North Charleston Police Department, adding that the city’s move wasn’t a mere gesture to quiet critics and activists. He said the review’s goal is to make the department “even better.” He added that the city’s request was voluntary.

Noble Wray, director of policing practices for the COPS program, said his office had received the request and would soon be sending a formal reply, but he couldn’t think of any police agency that has been denied an opportunity to participate in the process. North Charleston would become the 11th city to work with COPS on a collaborative reform study, he said.

“There are many positive things about it,” Wray said. “In particular, it gives you a chance to take a step back, look at your agency and look at those things that will help you connect with your community.”

If all goes as planned, Wray said, officials hope to kick off the effort in the next three or four weeks.

Scott’s death, which was caught on video, became a rallying point for critics who have long said North Charleston engaged in racially biased policing. The 50-year-old black motorist fled from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop and fought with officer Michael Slager before the policeman shot him five times as he ran away. Slager said that Scott had grabbed his Taser.

After the shooting, the FBI said it opened a probe into possible civil rights violations by the officer. Local activists called for a broader Justice Department “pattern-or-practice” investigation to look for sustained unconstitutional policing by the department.

But North Charleston officials said Thursday that they haven’t heard from any civil rights investigators.

The COPS office, however, is separate from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. It’s rooted in President Bill Clinton’s anti-crime push in 1994 to add 100,000 officers. The program now offers departments grants, sponsors research, and works with departments interested in “collaborative reform” of their training and crime-fighting tactics.

North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant said the reform effort isn’t enough. He said only a formal civil rights probe would lay out rules that the Police Department must follow in its patrolling and uses of force.

“I won’t settle for the idea that this is better than nothing,” Bryant said. “The department needs to be told ... to do this, this and this to correct the problems. You need to do X, Y, Z. And that’s it.”

Bryant’s comments were echoed this morning by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, whose leaders called for a more intensive civil rights investigation in the police department’s patterns and practices.

“Without question the ongoing demand for a pattern or practice federal investigation by South Carolina leaders and LDF has led city officials to seek the assistance of the COPS Office. But, we are concerned that the work of this office may not go far enough,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of LDF. “The criticisms of the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD) that city officials reference in their letter are not based on public perceptions, but lived experiences of physical abuse and questionable policing practices by NCPD officers toward African-American and Latino residents.”

Departments in Las Vegas and Fayetteville, N.C., have asked for similar help.

In Las Vegas, the Justice Department helped the police change its deadly force policies after a string of incidents in which officers shot 25 people in 2010 and killed 12 the following year, The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

The COPS analysis listed 75 findings and recommendations about training, policies, investigations and reviews of officer-involved shootings, and other use-of-force issues. The Justice Department issued its final report on the reforms in May 2014, indicating that the vast majority of the recommended changes had been implemented. The Review-Journal reported that the number of officer-involved shootings continued to decline during this period.

In Fayetteville, a report released in December listed 49 findings. Among them was the discovery of racial disparities in traffic stops, insufficient tracking of complaints about officers’ use of force and training deficiencies related to community-oriented policing. In all, the report included 76 recommendations for improvement, according to the Justice Department. The COPS Office is now working with the department over an 18-month period to help implement those recommendations. Federal officials now call Fayetteville a role model.

In contrast to the COPS reviews, the Civil Rights Division has slammed departments in Albuquerque, N.M., Cleveland, New Orleans and other cities for engaging in illegal uses of deadly force. The division’s actions are enforced by federal courts and often come with binding orders to change policing practices.

In a letter Thursday to the Justice Department, Summey and Driggers said the Scott shooting “had a significant impact on the city and the nation” that subjected the city to “intense scrutiny.” The letter added that before the shooting, the city had begun to shift away from then-Police Chief Jon Zumalt’s “Own Your Zone” approach to Driggers’ more collaborative “Know Your Zone” stance, but that the Scott shooting damaged this process.

Summey and Driggers then asked that the COPS program capture “accurate assessment of public perceptions” of the department, give the city guidance on how to best establish and perpetuate a citizen advisory panel, and identify ways to improve training and other policing practices.

In many ways, the current level of distrust between North Charleston police and the community grew out of practices they adopted the last time they tried to incorporate cutting-edge approaches that had been tried elsewhere.

When the city’s homicide rate soared in the mid-2000s, Zumalt brought in the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum to help the department learn innovative law enforcement techniques from across the country. At the time, “best practices” revolved around a zero-tolerance approach to crime and flooding problem areas with officers to clamp down on violence.

The approach worked from a crime standpoint, driving down violence to such a degree that it knocked North Charleston off a notorious annual ranking of the most dangerous cities in America. But while officials celebrated the decline, many residents bitterly complained about the aggressive patrols, relentless traffic stops and other measures used to achieve this goal.

Critics insisted these gains had come with a steep cost to civil liberties, particularly for black residents who constituted the majority of those subjected to stops and field questioning. Between 2008 and early 2012, 120 complaints were lodged against the Police Department, with the majority of the complaints coming from blacks.

When Zumalt retired in 2013, Summey said he turned to Driggers to usher in a more compassionate approach to policing.

In an interview Thursday afternoon, Brady Hair, an attorney for North Charleston, said the city has “a perception problem,” and that “we’re doing this to help improve relations with the community” because “we recognize and acknowledge that is strained.”

He said that after Scott’s death, the city took “a real hard inner look” at the Police Department and focused on settling a likely wrongful death claim from Scott’s family. Then, at the city’s request, federal officials came to North Charleston in March and met with people from the community. The city handed over some statistics.

Hair recalled, “Frankly, they said, ‘You guys got a good department. If you want us to, we can make it even better.’ ”

For the first year of the program, the officials will examine the department’s practices, interview officers and supervisors, talk with community members and analyze statistics. Then, they will come up with a plan.

While the process is voluntary, Hair called it a “very serious big deal” and said the federal authorities will expect the city to implement their suggestions and fund any costs associated with them. Any changes won’t affect the current budget and likely won’t require accommodations in the next one either, city officials said.

But once the city makes adjustments — probably more than 18 months from now — the office will watch for another year, then issue a report on its progress.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” Summey said. “If we have practices that are antiquated and need to be changed, then we’ll change them.”

As part of the push in North Charleston, the police have revamped their citizens advisory board. Each City Council member will appoint a district member to serve. The mayor also will have an appointment, and two students from area high schools will be chosen, too. But no community board will have the power to oversee the police, as some activists have suggested, Summey said.

“It’s going to take more than just law enforcement,” he said. “But I will never let a citizens group come in and direct how we run the Police Department.”

Summey stressed that the federal officials’ involvement wouldn’t be a “tool to condemn” the department’s past practices in fighting crime. City Councilman Ron Brinson of District 4 added that it would only expand the steps that Driggers has taken to improve community relations.

“In a way, it’s asking for validation of this effort,” Brinson said. “We thought our Police Department had really turned the corner. ... We were shocked” by the Scott shooting.

How it will be received inside the department also remains uncertain.

The mayor said he was aware that some officers in the department were unhappy with how quickly Slager was fired and arrested when the video emerged three days after Scott’s shooting.

Driggers said he expected the officers to welcome the federal officials’ involvement.

“Those people who make this their living always try to do the right thing,” Driggers said. “So when the COPS come in, they’re going to talk to police officers about how they see what’s going on. ... This is a way for them to give input on how their department moves forward as well.

“We’re penning history.”