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Charleston police chief, activists, hold racial justice town hall

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A City of Charleston Police Department car parked along Ann Street Saturday night July 25, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Two weeks after Charleston police said they'd ramp up patrols downtown, community leaders are asking the department to reconsider, saying the move targets historically Black communities.

In a two-hour racial justice town hall on Thursday night, area civil rights leaders were joined by Police Chief Luther Reynolds. The group discussed the recent increased presence of law enforcement on the peninsula as well as larger issues related to policing of Black and Brown communities, lack of education, a living wage, adequate employment and the need for racial justice, among other topics. 

The Rev. Nelson Rivers, vice president of religious affairs and external communications for the National Action Network, spoke about the history of policing and the fact South Carolina is the birthplace of law enforcement in the nation. 

Today's police departments are the descendants of runaway slave patrols, Rivers said. 

He, like others, expressed concern that the recent increase in patrols served more to appease the White community than to truly protect all residents, and that more officers wouldn't translate into safer neighborhoods. 

But he also expressed some optimism, pointing to the recent waves of protests that saw both White and Black residents taking to the streets with calls for equality, fairness and reforms to policing, the justice system and other areas. 

"In many ways, it’s the best time I’ve seen where we have a chance to change the paradigm," Rivers said. 

The civil rights leader said positive change will take courageous leadership and require leaders like the chief to take unpopular steps, such as reversing the decision on the patrol ramp up.

He also called on the community to step up.

"We need White people to use their privilege for justice as opposed to their promotion," Rivers said. "In Charleston, White folks with the privilege of being White must be willing to put it on the line, and not just rhetorically. We don’t want you to feel sorry and we don’t want you to listen. We want you to do."

The plan to increase patrols, in which Charleston police are being augmented by personnel from the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and State Law Enforcement Division, was announced following a shooting downtown that left the husband of a new College of Charleston official dead. 

Reynolds defended the plan, saying it came in response to calls by residents for more officers. 

"Every single community I've been in has had one request, more police," he said. "What I hear from our communities is they want to be safe. We have young kids who are afraid to sleep at night because a bullet might come through the window."

The chief also pointed to a worrying rise in the level of violent crime in the city and said officers are not going out as an occupying force looking to militarize the community. 

They're going out to work together with residents and build trust, Reynolds said.

"We need to be out in our communities," he said. "I call it relational policing. What we're not doing is arresting everybody ... no stop and frisk. No broken windows."

Reynolds also largely agreed with what activists said about the need for widespread changes that result in underserved communities, disadvantaged residents getting good access to quality education, jobs, housing and wages. 

And he agreed that police are asked to do too much, a phenomenon known as "mission creep" in which officers have found themselves dealing with trying to provide help to people struggling with addiction, poverty and mental health issues. 

Officers simply are not equipped to fulfill that role, Reynolds said. 

"We're doing our best to do this the right way," he said. "We have an obligation to try and help and not to be militaristic. That's not going to make it better. It is not a police-centric issue. It is everyone working together."

Earlier on Thursday, several organizations and leaders penned an open letter asking Charleston police, the sheriff's office and SLED to cancel the patrol ramp up. 

The ACLU of South Carolina signed that letter and sent its own, calling for transparency and apology after it said law enforcement flooded the East Side after downtown protests on May 31.

The organization's executive director, Frank Knaack, also took part in the town hall and spoke of deep concerns in the community about what they see as an increasing crackdown by authorities. 

He and others who took part in the event were skeptical of the chief's claim that residents had been calling for more officers. 

In community surveys and research conducted by the ACLU and organizations like the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, residents have said they want more services and less policing, Knaack said. 

He also spoke about a racial bias audit of the Charleston Police Department, which was completed last year. 

The audit found evidence of racial disparities, but fell short and represents a narrow view of public safety, Knaack said. 

The procedural reforms, such as better training and changes to departmental policy, will not solve the core problems that have sown distrust of law enforcement in minority communities, he said. 

Charleston police don't have a count on how many residents have asked for more or less policing, but Director of Research and Procedural Justice Wendy Stiver said community forums like Thursday's were outlined in the audit as a key way to hear citizens' concerns.

"This is going to take time, and we're going to learn from everything we do," Stiver said. "The whole point is to create opportunities for transparency and engagement in a way that's not controlled by the police department, that's not centered on police."

In the open letter, activists described as a lie the Charleston Police Department's claim that residents were demanding more officers. 

They cited weeks of peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing, during which Lowcountry residents demanded more community resources and a systemic decrease in policing. It called the plan for increased patrols, which Reynolds said would focus on high-crime areas, "an updated form of broken windows policing."

"This decision is not just a lack of judgment from our leadership, but a stance against the demands made by the community and an attack on the very people fighting for change," read the open letter, crafted by The Black Liberation Fund.

The liberation fund's founder, Latisha Imara, said the heightened presence of law enforcement in Charleston's historically Black communities is "in direct response to the gentrification happening in the city," adding some believe "when Black people are around, crime is happening."

Those north of the peninsula extended their support towards the civil rights groups.

Omar Muhammad, president of North Charleston's Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, said the decision to increase police presence reinforces the need for a community oversight board that would help law enforcement to avoid making "knee-jerk" decisions. 

State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, D-North Charleston, said he understands frustrations in downtown Charleston are immense and the city's mayor is under a lot of pressure, but local authorities shouldn’t rush to implement policies that will have a detrimental impact, particularly on marginalized communities.

“I just don’t know if this was the kind of response that was necessary,” Pendarvis said.

He pointed to policies enforced by law enforcement in other parts of the country, where minorities were disproportionately impacted.

“We know what happened with stop-and-frisk,” he said.

During the town hall, Treva Williams, lead organizer with the Justice Ministry, spoke about national calls for defunding police.

In 1987, Charleston spent equal amounts per capita on policing and on housing and community development, Williams said. Today, the gulf between those figures has widened to $340 per capita on policing and $6 on housing and community development. 

Knaack said that in the city's budget, one out of every four dollars goes toward policing. 

If some of that money went to affordable housing, addiction treatment, job opportunities and education, it would go a long way toward reducing crime, Williams and others said. 

Although Reynolds said he agreed that more should be done to address societal issues, he didn't agree with defunding his department. 

Hiring good, well-educated, officers, and properly equipping and training them takes money, he said. Community demands for accountability, transparency and respectfulness from officers are harder to achieve without enough funding.

The Rev. Byron Benton, pastor at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, spoke about the current climate in Charleston, saying that because of deep wounds to the Black community and other minorities, it takes very little to remind people of why they distrust police. 

"All that's emanating from a deep reservoir of pain," Benton said. 

The pastor said a new generation of leadership is needed, one committed to healing wounds that cross generations and that people should not be afraid to confront the truth, even if it makes them uncomfortable. 

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Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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