Echoing local activists who have long alleged racial bias, national NAACP legal officials on Monday called for a thorough federal investigation into any discriminatory tactics employed by the North Charleston Police Department.
The move comes more than three months after a white North Charleston police officer fatally shot Walter Scott in the back as the 50-year-old black man ran away during a traffic stop.
The U.S. Department of Justice already has announced it would examine Scott’s death for any civil rights abuses, but the federal authorities have not said whether they plan to broaden the probe.
A bystander filmed the episode with a cellphone, capturing a video that police critics have pointed to as an example of the strained relations between the local police force and black community members. They have long held that aggressive patrolling efforts in North Charleston have unfairly targeted poor, mostly black neighborhoods.
The police, meanwhile, have insisted that such measures in violent, drug-ridden areas are necessary crime-fighting tools that are not directed at people of a particular race.
Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager’s shooting of Scott on April 4 also came amid a nationwide focus on whether officers too quickly resort to deadly force against black men.
Monday’s development strengthens local activists’ long-standing plea for North Charleston to revise its policies and procedures and for federal authorities to effect such change. The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina also joined the effort by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which operates independently of the NAACP.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the New York-based NAACP legal organization, cited examples of police misconduct in asking U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Justice Department to open a sweeping investigation into the city’s force, not just Slager.
“The fatal shooting of Mr. Scott exposed to this nation another example of a culture of racially biased policing and excessive use of force that has long existed in North Charleston,” Ifill said Monday in a letter to Lynch. “The data on racial profiling and the examples of excessive force span multiple years and involve multiple NCPD officers, reflecting not isolated incidents, but a police culture that disproportionately harms the African-American community in North Charleston.”
Police officials disputed the need for such an inquiry.
“The city of North Charleston strongly disagrees with the characterization of the Police Department by the NAACP LDF in their letter and feels a Justice Department inquiry is not warranted,” police spokesman Spencer Pryor said.
In explaining the group’s decision to press for the probe, Ifill said the alleged racially motivated killings last month of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston further indicates an entrenched problem with racial violence in South Carolina.
In North Charleston, Ifill said in the letter, an investigation into the police would “allow the ... community to begin to heal (after Scott’s death), and the police to effectively and constitutionally protect and serve city residents.”
Local community members, lawmakers and religious leaders signed on to the NAACP group’s measure, including 10 concerned residents, NAACP North Charleston chapter President Ed Bryant, James Johnson of the National Action Network in South Carolina and six state representatives.
Attorney and state Rep. Justin Bamberg and Atlanta lawyer Christopher Stewart, who represent Scott’s family, said in a joint statement that their clients were pleased with authorities’ actions against Slager, but a closer look into an underlying problem is needed.
The attorneys have indicated plans to sue Slager and the police.
“The brazen shooting of Walter Scott and the North Charleston Police Department’s long history of potential racial profiling, and inadequate supervision of officers, are deserving of federal investigations,” they said. “Such investigations would send a clear message ... that the federal government will not tolerate ongoing racially motivated policing, even when excused as attempting to decrease crime.”
Ifill mentioned eight allegations of police misconduct in North Charleston over nearly 15 years, starting with the shooting death of Edward Snowden that ignited community uproar and calls for a federal investigation in October 2000. Officers were summoned to a video store as white men attacked Snowden, who is black.
When they showed up, the police shot Snowden because he had a gun he had pulled out in self-defense.
Many of the other instances prompted civil lawsuits, including an episode in which a black Army sergeant said he was wrongfully shocked with a Taser, but only one other officer besides Slager faced charges. Kenneth Ford, a black policeman, was arrested on charges that he detained and beat up a black man three years ago. Ford pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and was fined $750.
The department also has long struggled to hire black officers. Despite attempts to do so, the force is only about 18 percent black in the city that is 45 percent black.
“It’s past time to take a deeper look at how racial bias has permeated our institutions in South Carolina,” Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said Monday. “Long-standing complaints from the community, capped by Walter Scott’s tragic death, raise questions that can’t be brushed aside.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.