North Charleston officials soon will listen to a dozen proposed reforms that community organizations developed amid the drumbeat of police criticism since Walter Scott’s shooting death two months ago.
Mayor Keith Summey last week agreed to let members of the North Charleston Civil Coalition for Reform talk about their ideas on June 18 during a 10-minute presentation in front of City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
Some in the coalition, including protesters from Black Lives Matter Charleston, had been shut out of talks with the mayor as he balked at their traffic-jamming demonstrations and labeled as unreasonable their demand for a citizens board to investigate police complaints through subpoenas.
To the newly formed collection of neighborhood presidents, union leaders, activists and ministers, Summey’s move last week marked a shift in their fight to be heard. Their ideas cover a wide range of social and police initiatives, including investigations into alleged brutality and patrolling tactics said to have unfairly burdened poor, black communities and contributed to an officer’s deadly encounter with Scott, a black man.
But the divide between them and city officials remains wide, as Summey and the activists are split on how to best deal with concerns about the police. The mayor has ramped up a separate effort, and council members from some of the most destitute, crime-ridden areas voiced opposition to the coalition’s key suggestions for reform.
Creating a citizens review panel and appointing a special prosecutor to probe officers’ uses of deadly force remain high on the group’s list, though it has retracted an earlier demand for subpoena powers. The proposal, though, called for the firing of all officers with multiple credible complaints against them.
Other points on the list, though, divided some members of the coalition.
“All 12 reforms don’t have to happen, but at least we’re getting everyone to the table,” said Jesse Williams, co-chairman of the coalition and president of the Dorchester-Waylyn Neighborhood Association. “We’ll start with No. 1, and it will probably take years for some things to happen. ... But I’ve been seeing these issues in this community for a long time.”
Summey declined to discuss with The Post and Courier his stance on the list, which he first saw in a letter last month from Williams and another coalition leader. Instead, he provided an email he sent Tuesday to the group, granting its members time to address the Public Safety Committee.
The mayor also invited a coalition representative to attend a second meeting with a U.S. Department of Justice community relations expert to “bring your ideas forward for discussion,” Summey said in the email.
But coalition members rejected the offer, raising concerns that the Justice Department meeting would again be closed to the public and that their voice would be drowned out by other people chosen by the city to attend. The Community and Police Panel that the city formed eight years ago suffered from the same criticism that its members’ views fell in line with the mayor’s.
Dorothy Williams, a City Council member for a central district that includes depressed areas, said community groups should take opportunities to give input, and she agreed that the mayor should open his door to outside ideas.
But after she reviewed the list of reforms, she said the top item — a review board — would not happen. While the city’s internal police investigations of complaints might leave “room for improvement,” she disagreed with ceding the reins of such a responsibility to citizens.
“We don’t need that. We’re not going to get that,” Williams said. “As long as these groups are meeting with the city on a regular basis, I won’t agree to that. “
The cellphone video that captured officer Michael Slager shooting Scott in the back April 4 was seen as a galvanizing moment for activists who have decried the North Charleston Police Department’s heavy patrols of communities saddled with violent crime.
To civil-rights groups, the department’s measures had come at the expense of black people, the frequent targets of traffic stops and tickets. Some waged allegations of misconduct and abuse.
But how to go about effecting change fractured many groups as they disagreed on their priorities for reform and displays of civil disobedience. Some suffered from disorganization. The Civil Coalition for Reform was a result of an effort to iron out those differences.
More than 14 organizations, including the local National Action Network and Nation of Islam, joined its ranks since the end of April.
The local International Longshoremen’s Association has played a central role, providing a meeting hall for get-togethers. One of Scott’s brothers, Rodney, is an ILA member, moving an association official, Leonard Riley Jr., to help lead the coalition.
With a wide range of organizations taking part, the coalition is a force to be reckoned with, said Thomas Dixon, a member. But Dixon, founder of The Coalition: People United to Take Back Our Community, said some of the ideas might not be warmly received.
Dixon and other members opposed some of the 12 ideas when the reform group voted on them. Asking for Chief Eddie Driggers’ firing sharply divided members when they devised the list, but on Saturday, the group abandoned that point for the sake of unity in its ranks.
“I definitely didn’t agree with some of them,” Dixon said. “But unless City Hall sees a united effort, they’re just going to ignore the situation, which is literally what they’ve done over the past two months.”
Dixon and others remained skeptical of Summey’s efforts to have Walter Atkinson, the Justice Department senior conciliation specialist, gather input. Summey met Atkinson during a church service featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton shortly after Scott’s death and invited him to help, spokesman Ryan Johnson said.
During the first meeting last month, Atkinson talked about programs that could improve the community’s ties with the police. But Summey left early, and some participants don’t plan to attend the second meeting on June 23 because of it.
“The conversations we expected to have with the mayor never happened,” said Dixon, who attended, “so the group decided that it wasn’t helpful.”
Echoing Dixon, Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott said the meeting was another example of how the mayor can have “selective hearing.”
Though she disagreed with some protest tactics employed by Black Lives Matter Charleston, she applauded the group for helping to form the coalition. She joined, she said, with the caveat that she would represent herself as a resident, not the NAACP.
“We need some coherent plan like this that makes sense,” she said. “It’s a shame that we have to beg for those things.”
Coalition participants already have made concessions in hopes of turning their hallmark reform component into a reality.
Jesse Williams, the effort’s co-leader, said they didn’t want another police advisory board that would come up with ideas just to see the city go in another direction.
While coalition members dropped their demand for subpoena powers because the mayor doesn’t have the authority to grant them, Williams said, they will urge the City Council to pass an ordinance creating a Civilian Complaint Review Board. Chosen or elected by voters, its members could investigate old and new complaints, according to the reform list.
The coalition also would ask for the public release of all internal affairs records and for the firing of officers who repeatedly violate policies, the list stated.
Williams readily acknowledged that some of the ideas wouldn’t get enough support. But he also disagreed with how Summey was using the Justice Department expert to fulfill the pledge he made soon after Walter Scott’s death to address community concerns. The Justice Department is examining any civil rights violations in the shooting, but the agency has not said whether it planned to broaden its look to the entire police force.
“We can’t just have some government counselor sit down with grown men and women to tell them how to react to this,” Williams said. “That’s not what we need. We need to look at wrongdoing.”
Dorothy Williams, the District 6 council member, said any effort to form a review board would be a misdirection of resources. Violence between members of black communities should be a greater concern than police misconduct, she said. About 70 percent of all tri-county homicide victims since 2001 have been black, according to the newspaper’s database. The councilwoman is black.
“We don’t need a citizens review board when blacks are killing each other every day,” she said. “We are making it easy for the white supremacists, the skinheads and the KKK. We’re doing the job for them.”
But the coalition’s plan also aims to heal social wounds and help impoverished black communities.
While it asked for the hiring of more minorities on the police force, it also called for a more diverse planning commission and for a new African-American Business Development Office.
The coalition’s goals include a “participatory budgeting” process to allocate city funds for programs that could serve as alternatives to incarceration and homelessness, and for a plan to grant amnesty to municipal-level, nonviolent offenders.
In the Chicora-Cherokee community, often the scene of violent crimes, neighborhood association president Anjene Davis said the social efforts would get to the heart of the problem he sees. To Davis, his frustrated community has finally “found its voice” in the wake of Scott’s death.
“It’s been somewhat disappointing because we haven’t seen significant overtures by the city to begin the dialogue,” Davis said. “There were protests and media coverage, and officer Slager is in jail, but officer Slager is a symptom of a larger issue. It’s that issue that people want changed, and there hasn’t been enough progress toward that change.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.