CAJM at federal courthouse

The Rev. Charles Heyward, co-president of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, and other members of the interfaith group, also held a press conference last week to call for a federal investigation of the North Charleston Police Department. Paul Bowers/staff/file

An interfaith advocacy group is refusing to let up on efforts to eliminate racial discrimination in police practices. 

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry Monday morning called for a civil rights investigation of the North Charleston Police Department. And in the evening, hundreds of its members gathered at St. Matthew Baptist Church in North Charleston to recommit their focus on discrimination there and in other cities' police departments.

At a morning press conference, the group announced it had sent a letter to the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division asking for an investigation of the North Charleston Police Department's "patterns or practices" of racial discrimination.

Members from about 30 Lowcountry congregations signed on to support the North Charleston investigation. They also called for the city of Charleston to hire an external, independent, police auditing firm to audit the Charleston Police Department for "bias-based policing."

"We've come to recognize that peace cannot happen unless there is justice," said the Rev. Charles Heyward, the ministry's co-president. "And so we call upon our community leaders to pursue justice not just in the courtroom, but also in the policies and practices of our police departments."

The group made its morning announcement beside the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston, standing beside a statue of former federal judge J. Waties Waring, a pivotal figure in several civil rights cases. Their announcement comes as former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager faces a murder charge in the shooting of Walter Scott after a routine police stop.

It also comes as some community leaders say they have reached an impasse with North Charleston city leaders on the topic of citizen oversight of police actions. Neighborhood and religious leaders have called for some form of citizen review board since a month after Scott's April 2015 shooting.

About half the audience walked out of a recent North Charleston meeting about the creation of a new Citizens' Advisory Commission on Police-Community Relations. Some said the proposal, modeled after a relatively weak commission in Hammond, Indiana, would be toothless. North Charleston City Council gave the plan final approval Thursday.

"Any advisory board without subpoena power is just dangling our thoughts in the wind," Heyward said.

"Our grave concerns persist," said Mavis Huger, from Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. 

CAJM members said that their congregants have complained for years about unnecessary police stops and searches. The Rev. Nelson Rivers said he had been stopped in his car four times within a mile of his church, Charity Missionary Baptist.

"If it happens to the pastor, it happens to everybody," Nelson said.

CAJM provided The Post and Courier with a copy of a letter it will send to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The letter criticizes Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mayor Keith Summey for declining an invitation in April to the group's Nehemiah Action, an event that has traditionally used confrontational tactics to elicit promises from local leaders to carry out specific policies. Attempts to get a comment from Justice Department officials Monday were unsuccessful.

Last week, as North Charleston approved the new commission, Summey said of its critics: "They told us what they want, and we can't give it to them."

"The style of governing in North Charleston more resembles a dictatorship where elected officials don't represent (citizens') voices but their own interests, and more particularly the interests of the mayor," the group wrote in its letter.

CAJM members, were able to sign the letter at the Community Problems Assembly Monday evening.

At that gathering several speakers stressed the importance of continuing to push for justice.

"We're not fighting to improve statistics." said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander from Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, "We're organizing to improve lives."

 

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.