Zumalt to retire as North Charleston police chief

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt today announces his plans to retire at the end of January. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com)

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt today announced his plans to retire at the end of January, ending a 11-year run in which he worked to drive down violent crime, improve community relations and forge a more professional police force.

Zumalt announced his retirement at a noon press conference at City Hall. He said he has not had a day off in 11 years and looks forward to a change.

“It’s an exciting time for me,” he said.

Zumalt said he’s put his house up for sale and plans to be with his mother who has cancer. He said he’s not done with law enforcement but wants some time to rest and gain perspective.

Zumalt, 57, arrived in North Charleston in December 2001 and shepherded the department through periods of growth and turmoil. He brought in outside ideas to help curb the city’s soaring crime numbers and oversaw improvements that led to the police department receiving national accreditation in 2007.

He has won praise from city officials, community leaders and residents pleased with the drop in crime. But others, including NAACP officials, have repeatedly criticized him for increased traffic stops and other police tactics that they insist are rooted in racial profiling. Zumalt denies that charge.

When he first arrived, Zumalt took over a police department dogged with sagging morale, low wages, high turnover and a decided image problem. The previous year, police had fatally shot a black crime victim, prompting protests and tension that still simmered in the community.

Zumalt was an outsider, a former junior high school science teacher who had followed his wife into law enforcement and spent the next 20 years rising through the ranks of the Wichita (Kan.) Police Department.

After his arrival here, Zumalt surveyed officers and spent months meeting with his commanders, City Council members, community leaders and others to better understand the area and the job with which he had been tasked.

Zumalt then pushed the police department in new directions. He held a high-profile drug summit; introduced new technology, methods and promotion policies; set departmental goals; weeded out problem cops; and instituted a more democratic environment where officers could have a voice in key decisions. Morale and salaries improved; turnover dropped.

That momentum nearly derailed in 2003 after Asberry Wylder, a black shoplifting suspect, was shot to death by North Charleston police on Rivers Avenue, prompting criticism and stoking racial tensions.

He faced further challenges when violent crime soared a few years later, reaching a high water mark when the city racked up 55 killings between the start of 2006 and the end of 2007. That led to the unwanted distinction of North Charleston being named among the Top 10 most dangerous cities in the country in one annual survey.

Under Zumalt, North Charleston police responded by adding manpower, improving technology and embracing a host of innovative strategies that have met with success elsewhere in the country. Among other things, they restructured the department’s patrol division to improve response times, beefed up crime analysis, expanded community policing, embedded officers in troubled neighborhoods and worked to build stronger relations with the residents they serve.

The crime rate dropped dramatically. Compared with 2006, the number of slayings in the city was down 61 percent by 2009, while robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults were each down 30 percent or more, police numbers show. Violent crime continued to fall through last year, though homicides have been on the rise again this year. There have been 11 killings this year, compared to five last year.

The number of officer-initiated actions and traffic stops also increased dramatically, which also has had a big impact on crime in troubled neighborhoods, police said. The number of traffic stops citywide increased by about 3,000 to nearly 64,000 in 2011.

That drew praise from some residents and scorn from others who accused the police of harassment and racial profiling that has alienated minority residents from the authorities. In all, 36 people filed written complaints about the police in 2011, compared with 22 in 2008, when the policy was in its formative days.

In 2012, complaints are coming in at a rate that could total 80 by the new year. A majority of those complaining are black.