An interfaith advocacy group is calling for a deeper, outside examination of Charleston police policies on pedestrian stops beyond Chief Greg Mullen’s planned review aimed at weeding out innocent people from a massive database culled from these encounters.
Members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry said Mullen’s approach won’t get at the underlying problems with these stops or the racial disparities highlighted in The Post and Courier’s recent series, “Watched.” Erasing names from the database eliminates documentation of questionable stops without exploring the potential lessons they contain, said the Rev. Charles Heyward, co-president of the justice ministry.
“That’s just getting rid of the evidence,” he said. “Nothing they’re proposing to do gets at the real issue of restoring trust with the community.”
Mullen strongly disputed that assertion, saying that he and his department have been working on several fronts to strengthen ties and trust with the community. He said the idea of removing names from the database came directly from the “Watched” series, which described how several police agencies have gone this route to avoid unfairly labeling people who have done nothing wrong.
“We are not destroying evidence,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything from anybody.”
The “Watched” series, published in September, revealed that police forces across the United States are stockpiling massive databases with personal information from millions of Americans who crossed paths with officers but were not charged with a crime. They have compiled this data through the use of field contact or interview cards to document everything from suspicious behavior to random encounters with the public.
Heyward and other members of the justice ministry said they were troubled to learn that Charleston police had a database that included nearly 100,000 entries documenting encounters with some 35,000 people. North Charleston police have a similar database with about 52,000 entries on 34,000 people. Blacks are disproportionately represented in both databases, as they are in field contact files kept by many departments across the nation. Police attribute this to a concentration of resources in high-crime areas.
In response to the series, Mullen assembled a team to review how his department could remove people in its database not specifically tied to crimes. Police in the capital city of Columbia police also announced a plan to review their field contact policies. And on Friday, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said his department had launched a similar review in response to the series.
“NCPD’s executive staff has discussed and are examining law enforcement best practices regarding field interview contact cards,” he said.
The justice ministry, however, doesn’t think those efforts go far enough. They want police in Charleston and North Charleston to submit to an independent, external audit to evaluate their policies, procedures, training and tactics with an eye toward ensuring fairness and equal protection under the law. The group first made this request at its annual Nehemiah Action Assembly in April, citing concerns over the rate of investigatory stops made by the two departments.
The Rev. Daniel Massie, a founding member of the justice ministry, said that with the amount of concerns and mistrust surrounding law enforcement nationwide, police agencies “can’t afford not to undergo an independent audit” of their practices and procedures.
“When people are being stopped for no apparent reason, your trust erodes,” he said.
Charleston officials said they are already working to address these concerns. The Illumination Project, funded by the nonprofit Charleston Police Fund, worked for the past year to solicit citizen input and draft a plan to improve trust with the community. Work is now underway to implement 86 strategies outlined in the group’s final report, including special training for officers on topics such as unconscious bias and cultural differences.
The city also is soliciting proposals to conduct a performance review of its departments, including Charleston police. In a request for proposals, the city has asked that firms interested in evaluating the police department cite their experience related to “ fair and impartial policing, disparate impact, and crime analysis associated with enforcement practices used to identify, prevent, and respond to public safety requirements of a diverse population.”
Justice ministry representatives, however, said that the city’s request doesn’t specifically state that those areas will be addressed in the evaluation or that companies must have that experience to be selected.
Mullen said the firm that is chosen to evaluate the department will indeed be looking at its data management and practices, as stated in the request. In addition, a citizens advisory board will be working with the department to review policies and procedures, including those surrounding field contact stops.
“I think we are already doing a lot of things they are talking about,” he said. “And I am doing everything I can to try to work with the community and build trust and legitimacy in this organization.”
Mullen said he sees no need to proceed with another justice ministry request to install a permanent Independent Police Auditor’s office with civilian oversight modeled after similar agencies in San Jose, Calif.; New Orleans; Eugene, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M.
Mullen said his department already gets sufficient monitoring from the mayor, City Council and the public. From the feedback he’s received, Mullen said, people don’t have a real trust issue with his department.
For his part, Driggers said North Charleston is already undergoing a voluntary, year-long review by the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS. “The audit is underway,” he said.
North Charleston is the 11th city in the country to experience a top-to-bottom look at its policing efforts by the COPS program. The city asked for the review after months of tensions in the wake of the April 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott. He was shot by a North Charleston police officer now facing a murder charge.
But critics, including justice ministry members, worry that the Justice Department review will take too long, won’t drill down into potentially unconstitutional acts and might not bring the lasting reforms they seek.
Justice ministry members said they plan to keep pressing their agenda. The group, which generally picks a new social justice topic to examine each year, is considering deviating from that practice in 2017 and maintaining its focus on racial discrimination in policing. More than 600 members of the justice ministry are expected to gather on Nov. 14 to vote on a course of action for the coming year.