Shooting death of Walter Scott deals blow to North Charleston's struggle to balance civil rights, public safety

People gather to protest the shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer during a Black Lives Matter Charleston demonstration against police violence Wednesday morning in front of North Charleston City Hall.

North Charleston has struggled since its inception with mistrust and tension between citizens and police as it tries to find a delicate balance between public safety and civil rights in a community beset with violent crime.

The state’s third-largest city has pockets of deep, entrenched poverty and neighborhoods where gunfire has been a familiar visitor in the night. But attempts to quell the crime, which for three years landed North Charleston among the nation’s most dangerous cities, brought about cries of racial profiling and unfair treatment of minorities — particularly of young, black men.

Years-long efforts to bridge that divide and smooth relations with the community took a deep hit this week with the arrest of Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, accused of gunning down an apparently unarmed, fleeing black man after a traffic stop. Slager, who is white, is charged with murder in 50-year-old Walter L. Scott’s death.

A protest outside City Hall remained peaceful Wednesday morning, but demonstrators drowned out Mayor Keith Summey during an afternoon news conference with chants demanding justice and questioning the city’s struggle to hire minority police officers. The department is about 18 percent black in a city that is 45 percent black.

While the FBI has opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, Summey vowed to discuss with residents whether the city’s policing tactics and policies should be changed. He also announced that the city Wednesday bought 150 body-worn cameras in light of Scott’s death that will complement the 101 cameras it had already ordered through a state grant. He didn’t say when the city would get the shipment of 251 cameras that will outfit every uniformed patrol officer.

State Rep. David Mack, a North Charleston Democrat who is black, was a speaker a few years ago in classes on cultural sensitivity that were mandated for all new officers. It was a program designed to help them better understand policing from the perspective of those they serve. Mack thought the classes made a difference, but a video of Scott’s shooting that emerged Tuesday shows that the Police Department still has its issues, he said.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “I think we have made progress, but this incident ... wounded the community tremendously.”

The footage, which was shot by a passerby, spread rapidly worldwide after The Post and Courier first broke the news of the evidence that contradicted Slager’s account. Though it showed the officer shooting Scott in the back, it left some questions unanswered and sparked speculation of what happened.

A spokesman from the State Law Enforcement Division, which is tasked with an independent investigation, said he couldn’t answer those questions because the probe wasn’t finished. SLED has dashboard camera footage from Slager’s car, which could explain why Scott’s Mercedes-Benz was pulled over but would not show anything about the shooting, the spokesman, Thom Berry, said. Berry did not respond Wednesday to a request for the video.

Police Chief Eddie Driggers also wouldn’t clarify whether the video showed Slager picking up his Taser X26 and dropping it near Scott’s body. The officer has said that Scott had taken the device from him and tried to use it.

Driggers also was uncertain whether his officers performed CPR on Scott.

“I’m going to be totally honest with you,” he said of the footage, “I was sickened by what I saw.”

After Scott is buried, the city’s mayor said he would open up police procedures for a discussion, a process he said Driggers had been working on for two years.

“We will be ... looking for ways to develop a closer relationship with the individual communities,” Summey said. “We will look at ways to enhance the quality of service we provide to our citizens, and by that, I mean all our citizens.”

But if history is any guide, the road to restoring trust could be an arduous path. That problem was clear during the news conference when residents interrupted Summey several times with chants.

“How are you the mayor?” one man yelled. “Nobody respects you.”

The conference was punctuated with chants of “the mayor gotta go” and “no justice, no peace.” Some people in the crowd were familiar with the sentiment.

Old-timers in the Police Department used to share stories of bare-knuckled brawls as outnumbered officers waded into packed and unruly roadhouses to restore order in the days after the city formed in 1975. Outmanned and hemmed in, they found it safer to subdue and ask questions later. It was a question of survival, they said.

The department has come a long way since those days and is now a nationally accredited institution, priding itself on professional rules and policies that have withstood expert scrutiny. But questions have lingered through the years about the methods employed by the rank-and-file to keep the peace — particularly in regard to using deadly force against black residents.

“We want the world to understand that this is not an isolated incident,” protester Muhiyidin d’Baha said at the demonstration Wednesday morning in front of City Hall. “This has been a reality that has been in the North Charleston Police Department for many, many years.”

In October 2000, for example, protesters took to the streets after the police shooting death of Edward Snowden in a Dorchester Road video store. Snowden, a black man who was being attacked by four white men, was shot by police after they arrived and found him holding a gun. Police were cleared of wrongdoing, though the city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Snowden’s family for about $70,000.

Racial tensions rose again after the November 2003 fatal shooting of Asberry Wylder, a black shoplifting suspect with a history of mental illness. Police shot Wylder after he plunged a knife into an officer’s protective vest during a confrontation outside a Rivers Avenue supermarket. Some witnesses said Wylder was beaten and shot a second time after he was handcuffed on the ground. The state’s probe found nothing to indicate that the police acted improperly, but that conclusion won little acceptance in the black community.

Tensions continued to simmer as the pressure to drive down crime intensified when the city racked up 55 killings between the start of 2006 and the end of 2007. That led to Washington-based CQ Press ranking North Charleston among the Top 10 most-dangerous cities in the nation.

Desperate to shake the distinction, city officials enacted a policy of aggressive patrolling: incessant stops of motorists for minor violations, seemingly random interviews with residents and a virtual police occupation of neighborhoods in the days just after violence occurred.

The idea was to create constant contact with residents of the most troubled areas in the city, tamping down the opportunities for crime while establishing sources to help investigators solve cases. The strategy seemed to work. By 2010, the number of people slain had fallen to five, and the city tumbled off the upper reaches of the infamous list of perilous places to live.

Critics, however, insisted that those 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.

Then-Police Chief Jon Zumalt tried numerous approaches to easing the tensions on this front, from the cultural sensitivity classes that Mack participated in to a program called “Sell the Stop” in which officers were trained to politely explain to residents the necessity of pulling them over. But the drumbeat of criticism continued through Zumalt’s tenure.

Like the chief who took over for him, Zumalt said in an interview Wednesday that he was sickened by what he saw on the video of Scott’s death, which he called “heartbreaking.”

Balancing public safety with the need to preserve civil rights is perhaps the most challenging part of police work these days, he said, and one that he confronted during his time here. He tried to involve community members and activists such as James Johnson, a local National Action Network president, in the process to help increase understanding of policing and strengthen bonds with citizens, he said.

“You have to reduce violence and keep the community safe, but you have to do it in such a way that you don’t alienate the people you are serving,” Zumalt said. “That is the core and the most difficult thing to achieve in policing today.”

The Scott shooting “is going to damage that relationship and make it even more difficult to achieve that balance,” Zumalt said.

When Driggers, a veteran law enforcement officer and former police chaplain, took over after Zumalt’s retirement in early 2013, Summey said his Christian approach to policing was what the city needed. The soft-spoken chief, who has a penchant for meeting detractors with hugs, set out to win over critics and invite them into his office to share their views. He visited crime scenes, oversaw an effort to place officers in every school and started a Powder Puff football program to give teen girls something positive to do.

But Johnson, the activist whom Driggers’ predecessor once tried to work with, said the chief had not thoroughly addressed allegations of racial profiling or dealt with a perception that the city’s officers “will stop you, lock you up and shoot you.”

“Driggers really just took up where Zumalt left off; he may just be doing it in a different way,” Johnson said Wednesday. “What his department needs is to be rebuilt from the bottom to the top. That’s how he’s going to get that confidence from the community.”

It remains to be seen how much goodwill and patience Driggers’ efforts will earn the city in the wake of the shooting. The chief’s voice has quivered this week, and he occasionally appeared on the verge of tears as he addressed local and national news media. He often drew on his faith.

“I have been praying for peace, peace for this family and peace for this community,” he said Wednesday after he and the mayor visited with Scott’s loved ones. “I will continue to stand on that as I strive to protect and serve.”

People in the neighborhoods he serves, though, are clearly shocked. And angry.

About 200 protesters amassed Wednesday morning in front of City Hall, the first organized rally since the video came to light. Members of Black Lives Matter Charleston, a grassroots group that formed after police-involved deaths in Missouri and New York, had figured that the day might come when the national conversation on the use of deadly force hit home.

Signs thrust into the air were emblazoned with messages of “back turned, don’t shoot” and “stop racist police terror.”

“I’m here on behalf of every father in this country, in this nation, that’s saying I’m tired of seeing this weekly, daily,” protester Calvin Bennett said. “The good cops know the bad cops. If you’re a good cop, do something about that.”

The rally ended with protesters blocking nearby Mall Drive for 15 minutes. Some angry motorists yelled at them from their cars. But one got out to hug and link arms with the demonstrators.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, himself a former North Charleston police chief, said the delicate balance between civil rights and public safety is made even more difficult against the backdrop of Ferguson, Mo., and in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

But in regard to the investigation in North Charleston, Cannon said, the process has shown to be valid. “It’s working here,” he said, “and it’s not working to satisfy anyone in particular. It’s working to satisfy justice.”

Some local community members have lauded Summey and Driggers for acting so quickly to fire Slager and condemn his actions when the video of the killing surfaced.

Both of them also attended the protest Wednesday. Summey said the city offered a consolation to the officer’s wife, who is in her eighth month of pregnancy, by continuing to pay for her health insurance.

Bill Saunders, a longtime civil rights activist who spent years documenting alleged police abuses as head of the North Charleston-based Committee on Better Racial Assurance, said he was stunned by the pair’s swift condemnation and pledge to seek justice. Saunders once had so little faith in the police that he issued an alert to young black men in 2006, warning them not to drive at night lest they encounter an officer.

“What happened right now with this police officer being charged, it really is a miracle,” he said. “And I think one of the most impressive things to come out of this all is the position the mayor and chief of police have taken.”

David J. Thomas, a professor and former police officer who serves as a senior research fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, said the public is generally willing to accept that police are human beings and subject to flaws. If goodwill exists between the chief and his community, they are more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt going forward.

If not, tensions could continue to build, he said, and the city runs the risk of attracting people from outside the area who could ramp up the volume and intensity of the demonstrations.

To stop that before it happens, observers and residents said prosecutors must also vigorously pursue the murder charge that Slager faces. Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson vowed to pursue a grand jury indictment, likely next month, and let the public know about every court date.

But investigators also must answer lingering questions.

They must determine what Clarence Habersham, the first backup officer to show up at the shooting scene, saw when he got there.

Slager had chased Scott to the secluded area near Remount Road and Rivers Avenue after he said he stopped Scott for a broken brake light about 9:30 a.m. Saturday. A young man who happened to be there started filming, and he told NBC News on Wednesday night that the pair were locked in a struggle on the ground.

“They were down on the floor before I started recording,” Feidin Santana of Hanahan told NBC News. “The police had control of ... Scott. Scott was trying just to get away from the Taser. You can hear the sound of the Taser ... before I started recording.”

The video does not show if Scott ever gained control of the Taser, but he appeared to slap something from the officer’s hands.

Slager, who said he felt threatened because Scott had taken the device, fired eight .45-caliber bullets from his Glock 21. Five of them plunged into Scott’s body. In Slager’s radio communications that local and state agencies released Wednesday after the newspaper pointed out that they were public record, the officer said that Scott had been shot in the chest and the buttocks.

All the bullets, though, hit Scott from behind, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said in a statement.

The video showed the officer jogging back to an object that had fallen to the ground during the struggle. Slager dropped it near the body, but the footage also showed him later picking up something and attaching it to his duty belt. Habersham, a black officer, was standing near Slager.

In protests Wednesday, residents cried out for the police chief to answer their questions about the video, and they balked when the city’s mayor asked for quiet so he could answer journalists’ questions. “Our community member died,” they chanted, “not the media’s.”

Ed McClain, a retired pastor who has lived in North Charleston for all of his 75 years, was in the crowd. He had been encouraged by progress in the relationship between the police and the community. Getting body cameras would be another step in the right direction, he said.

“But then there’s a moment like this,” McClain said, “when the trust is torn away.”

William Pugh, a junior at Academic Magnet High School, said it’s impossible to live in a world where people don’t feel safe, and Scott’s killing makes it difficult to see the police in a good light as protectors of the community.

“Being an African American young man, I cannot even describe what it’s like to know that events like this happen,” he said. “We have to change the system. We have to do something. And we have to stop letting these events happen.”

Christina Elmore, Brenda Rindge and Melissa Boughton contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or