Reggie Burgess is the police chief that North Charleston had always needed.
And before long, the city will need another one just like him.
When Burgess took over the North Charleston Police Department in January 2018, he announced that his immediate goal, beyond reducing crime, was to improve community relations.
“We’re going to actually try and, first of all, build a cohesive partnership with the community and the police,” Burgess said.
That had been a priority of North Charleston police for years, and was even more critical in the years following the Walter Scott shooting, and the Trump administration’s subsequent decision to cancel a city-requested Justice Department review of its practices.
So when Chief Eddie Driggers retired, Mayor Keith Summey had the brilliant idea to forgo a national search and instead promote Burgess, then a deputy chief with nearly 30 years on the force.
Burgess was a great pick: He’s a North Charleston native, a respected officer ... and, as many residents recalled, a popular local football star. And, turns out, he’s a natural leader. In just about two years, Burgess has made a noticeable difference, internally and in the community.
Which is why Gov. Henry McMaster last week nominated him to lead the state Department of Public Safety, a law enforcement agency with its own share of problems.
Everybody around City Hall is happy for Burgess, and unsurprised that his talents caught the attention of state officials. But when Burgess is confirmed by the state Senate early next year, the city will face a new challenge.
How do they replace Burgess?
The answer: Very carefully.
North Charleston is a unique place. It is the Lowcountry’s industrial hub, ground zero for retail commerce and an urban center with a growing population. But it is also a diverse area that includes neighborhoods of high poverty and unenviable crime rates.
Policing such a city takes a deft touch. A decade ago, North Charleston increased patrols and police stops in areas where crime was most prevalent. Crime went down, but some residents complained that they were being racially profiled. The department backed off and, as it did, the crime rate crept back up.
That’s a balancing act police must deal with everywhere, but in North Charleston it’s long been a struggle. Burgess helped by having a relationship with the community — and by embracing modern concepts in law enforcement.
Earlier this year, the chief announced that every officer in his department would go through racial equality training hosted by the YWCA Greater Charleston and the Metanoia Community Development Corp.
“The North Charleston Police Department created three central themes in 2019: strengthening partnerships with the community we serve, the reduction of crime and the creation of safe neighborhoods,” Burgess said. “We are always looking for opportunities to further build trust and open dialogue with our citizens and communities. ... (This) training will provide officers with much-needed insight on relationship building and help us gain clarity on the impact of racism and biases.”
Burgess has also worked with Charleston County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Eric Watson to bring in former FBI agent and prosecutor Quentin Williams, who has developed an anti-bias training program for law enforcement.
Watson — another homegrown law enforcement veteran — may end up on the city’s radar. Williams says as a result of his work at the FBI Academy, Watson is “now being recognized nationally for his skill sets.”
North Charleston certainly needs to keep up the good work begun by Burgess because it's important on so many levels.
There are a lot of good people at the North Charleston Police Department. They do a hard, often dangerous job for not enough pay, and they have taken more heat than they should have for the crimes of a former colleague.
Burgess made things better; morale is up and community complaints are down. It’s no wonder the governor nominated the chief. The Department of Public Safety will benefit from his leadership.
But North Charleston, and its police department, shouldn’t have to suffer without it.