The men and women of the North Charleston Police Department have spent the past week like everyone else in this community — sad, mad, trying to make sense of the senseless.
Just like us, they have been glued to cable news shows, attended news conferences and protests. And they have repeatedly watched that video of Patrolman Michael Slager firing eight shots at Walter Scott’s back, not stopping until the man fell dead.
It has disturbed them.
And why shouldn’t it? After all, they are members of the community the same as everyone else. They also have more skin in the game than most.
Because Slager was one of them.
“It’s a sad day for our community, and throughout the country,” says North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Jamel Foster. “After the video came out, some people had to vent. But they still supported us. It was heartbreaking.”
The reaction has at times been inspiring. Sgt. Rob Kruger says for the past week his phone has been ringing 24 hours a day — people calling, texting, offering prayers.
“This is not L.A. or Chicago, we know all our citizens,” Kruger says. “The local community is actually helping us through this.”
That says a lot about this community — and it says something about the police department, too.
For years, the NAACP and some community leaders have accused North Charleston police of racial profiling, of stopping black motorists under the pretext of a minor traffic violation to check them out.
They have denied those charges, saying the department concentrates its manpower in areas where there is the highest crime — and that is usually poorer neighborhoods. Which often means black neighborhoods.
Slager gave those critics ammunition by doing exactly what police have long been accused of doing, and now the rest of the force has to deal with it.
“The thing that has hurt is they look at Officer Slager and put us all in the same barrel,” Foster says.
Officers such as Kruger and Foster say they took their jobs because they love people, not because they want to shoot them. Kruger talks about helping folks move, finding them jobs, even painting their houses. They mentor kids, they look out for their neighbors — just like a lot of people.
“The dream is you come to work and don’t arrest anyone,” Foster says. “But the reality is that people make poor judgments.”
Foster patrols in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He’s been part of a program of rehabilitating criminals that is such a success it was featured on NBC’s “Dateline.” Kruger is on a team that rehabilitates violent offenders.
That is good work, and based on the messages they have been getting, it’s clear a lot of folks appreciate what they do. But some people wrongly lump all cops into one category when things like this happen. And that’s wrong.
M. Quentin Williams, a New York attorney, former FBI agent and author of “A Survival Guide: How Not to Get Killed by the Police,” says the vast majority of officers do good work for the right reasons, and shouldn’t be painted with the same brush as Slager.
“Ninety-nine percent of these police officers are trying to serve and protect, and they just want to go home to their families at night,” Williams says.
And yes, that includes North Charleston cops. Most of them knew Slager but are just as confused as the rest of us. They have no idea what he was doing. But some privately say that what he did is pretty simple: murder.
And they are not happy about it, and not because it tarnishes their image.
Mayor Keith Summey has been praised for doing the right thing here — for firing Slager, asking that he be charged with murder — but at some events last week, people said he should step down.
They claimed he didn’t call in SLED until the video surfaced, which is wrong. SLED was on the scene within an hour of the shooting. Summey and his police reacted appropriately in a time of great tragedy. Everyone up and down the line — including U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn — say that Summey did an exemplary job.
But ask Summey what has disturbed him most, and he will tell you it was the coldness he saw in Slager on that video. It is in stark contrast to the warmth he received when he visited Scott’s family.
“His mom and dad are salt of the earth,” Summey says. “She told me she’d already forgiven the officer. I don’t know that I could be that forgiving.”
He says Slager violated every rule of the department, and he is mad — and so are his cops.
“We told them an hour before we made the announcement,” Summey says. “The force feels like they have been violated as well.”
Summey says that he believed the police had gotten less aggressive, that Chief Eddie Driggers has improved community relations. Still, he says maybe it’s time to stop pulling over cars with a brake light out when they have two others that work.
“Maybe we just pull up next to them and say over the speaker, ‘You’ve got a brake light out — better get that fixed,’ ” he says.
While Summey gets a lot of well-deserved accolades, a lot of his police officers have been tarred by the same incident. They’ve basically been called killers. For days, people have walked around the city with signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter.”
Patrolman Foster, who is black, takes that one step farther.
“I just want the community to know that all lives matter,” he says.
He is absolutely right. And that is the message the North Charleston Police Department wants the community to hear.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.