To people who lambasted North Charleston’s police force after a video showed one of its officers killing Walter Scott, the city’s answer last week to their calls for reform rings hollow.
It wasn’t the full-scale civil rights investigation they had hoped for.
But to observers and police chiefs who have experienced the U.S. Department of Justice program that’s likely coming to North Charleston at the city’s request, the effort can bring more profound, lasting change than the government investigations forced on other troubled police agencies in recent years.
Once again, city officials remain at odds with their most strident critics on how best to revise practices viewed as unfair to black residents. The step that city leaders took Thursday, though, is seen by some as a start.
The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office is to conduct a year-long study of the department. Any changes put into place as a result of the Collaborative Reform Initiative would depend on whether the city chooses to adopt them.
But with the officials’ request to the COPS office, “they are already a couple of steps down that road, indicating that they want to make some changes and need some outside help to do it,” said Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on police accountability issues.
Scott, a black man, was killed April 4, 2015, after running from a traffic stop and fighting with officer Michael Slager. The video captured Slager shooting Scott in the back.
Since then, the Police Department has reeled in its once-incessant traffic stops by more than a half. But critics have greeted the dip and the city’s announcement of the COPS effort with skepticism.
James Johnson, South Carolina president of the National Action Network, sees the city’s request as a gesture to appease those who have spoken out since Scott was killed a year ago. And it’s not enough, he said.
“If Walter Scott didn’t get killed, North Charleston would be the same,” he said. “Now that the whole world is looking at them, they want to change their image. But they just want to change their image on their own terms.”
The measure is billed as an extensive examination of the department. North Charleston would be the 11th American city to ask for the help. Mayor Keith Summey said he sees it as a program that people such as Johnson could support.
“We want to make the changes we need in law enforcement,” Summey said. “But it’s going to take the whole community.”
The development came three weeks after Scott’s family expressed consternation over the city’s lack of action. North Charleston officials, though, said the effort had already been in the works.
Scott’s loved ones are pleased with the move and hopeful that it will ferret out policies and procedures that need improvement, said Justin Bamberg, a state lawmaker who serves as the family attorney. He called the program a “substantial step” toward improving the relationship between the police and the people.
“This is a situation where only good can come of it,” he said. “It’s a fresh set of eyes coming in from the outside, from the federal government.”
Still, Bamberg knows the Justice Department also heard the calls for a civil rights investigation, he said. To his knowledge, he said, the agency has not yet decided whether to undertake that broader inspection.
Federal officials in Washington have declined to publicly comment on it.
Walker, the college professor, thinks North Charleston did the right thing by asking the COPS program for help, he said.
“I understand the perspective of those who want a civil rights investigation,” he said. “But (the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division) is simply swamped with requests, and they can’t possibly investigate every police department that has problems — which is a large number.”
The collaborative reform process lacks a compulsory element that would require the city to make changes, but this method has produced solid results in a number of cities, Walker said. The resulting reports, which are open to the public, contain a wealth of information and recommendations that police departments can use to improve, he said.
By contrast, civil rights investigations generally last five years and come with consent decrees and federal court monitors to ensure compliance. But at the end of that period, the city would be on its own again to make sure the reforms last, Walker noted.
The COPS program will require the city’s buy-in from start to finish, and proponents argue that this offers a prospect that the changes will stick. Brady Hair, an attorney for North Charleston, said the city expects to implement any suggested reforms that it can afford.
But they could cost a fair amount of money, Walker said. “Reforming a police department isn’t cheap,” he said.
Several cities have found success with the program’s help.
Philadelphia chose to go through a COPS review after a rash of officer-involved shootings. The March 2015 report found “an undercurrent of significant strife between the community and department,” as well as deficiencies in training and handling of police shooting investigations. It yielded 48 findings and 91 recommendations for reform of the department’s deadly force practices.
In December, federal officials lauded the department’s progress in implementing the recommendations while city officials noted a sharp decline in police shootings.
Fayetteville, N.C., Police Chief Harold Medlock reached out to the COPS office to address a disturbing pattern of mistrust between law enforcement and the community, escalated by “a few” instances of officer-involved deaths, he said.
“We wanted an opportunity for someone to come in and ... see if the things we were doing were correct,” he told The Post and Courier during a national policing event Friday at the White House. “Not that they weren’t legal; they were legal. But legal ... isn’t always right.”
Part of the initiative’s success lay in the Justice Department’s sensitivity, he said. The officials introduced themselves to patrol officers and command staffers. They went on ride-alongs and responded to crimes with officers, he said.
“That group of professionals ... academics and researchers came in and spent time with the department, and it was the right mix,” Medlock said. “DOJ was very careful to send the right people to really integrate into the department and learn about it. ... It eased a lot of fears that we had.”
In the end, the Justice Department’s 76 recommendations didn’t single out names or police units, assuaging officers’ fears about being blamed or humiliated within the ranks. Implementing the changes wasn’t especially costly either, Medlock said.
“Anything that the COPS office and DOJ has recommended in the way of training,” he said, “they have been willing to help offset some of the cost.”
Still, activists doubt it’s the proper route for North Charleston.
Since Scott’s death, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a New York-based racial justice advocacy group, has helped lead the charge for a “pattern-or-practice” investigation, the formal name of the Justice Department’s civil rights probe.
Monique Dixon, the nonprofit’s deputy policy director in Washington, said she and other advocates view North Charleston’s move as a direct result of that persistent call. She welcomed it. But in effect, the city will be getting softer scrutiny than it would face in a civil rights probe, she said.
An initial indicator of that, Dixon said, was North Charleston’s request to COPS. The letter by Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers failed to cite statistics that some advocates see as evidence of biased policing, she said. More than 60 percent of people pulled over in North Charleston are black, though its population is 47 percent black.
“It was a glaring omission,” Dixon said. “That causes us to have even more concern that if we don’t have a pattern-or-practice investigation, we will not actually solve the underlying problem that so many people have shared with us.”
Input from those regular folks is vital to the success of any reform measure, said Shaundra Young Scott, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.
City officials have discounted public opinion in the past, she said, particularly when they have vehemently disagreed with those views. But those people must have a chance to plot the course that the Justice Department takes, she said.
“We just want to make sure the requests from the community are respected and the community has a voice in this process,” Young Scott said. “We’re finally in an era to effectuate some type of change.”