After Reggie Burgess was sworn in as North Charleston police chief three months ago, he thanked a crowd of supporters, kissed his wife and slid into the passenger seat of a police cruiser for his first ride-along as the city's top cop.
Since that January evening, Burgess has accompanied 75 officers on patrol. The newly minted police chief who has 29 years of experience at the department says ride-alongs are one part of his approach to directly connect with the people on the ground floor: the officers who go call to call and the residents they serve.
Burgess touts community policing as the answer to preventing and solving violent crime that led to the city's deadliest year on record with 35 slayings in 2017.
There were three homicides in the first three months of 2018, compared with nine by the same point last year. After two of those recent shooting deaths, Burgess marched in the streets where the young men were gunned down, holding "Stop the Violence" signs alongside religious and city leaders. He has also met residents at community meetings, where he said he has addressed their concerns and encouraged them to sign up for real-time information from his agency via the Nextdoor app.
Some officials, including Mayor Keith Summey, suggested late last year that the police force consider a return to frequent traffic stops. But Burgess said he doesn't plan to use patrols or raids to "put a net over the whole community" where crimes occur. He hopes to instead zero in on the crimes themselves.
Supporters of more frequent traffic stops have credited those efforts with driving down violence. But critics of stops for minor violations — which plummeted after a North Charleston officer fatally shot Walter Scott in 2015 — have said the practice unfairly targeted residents of minority, high-crime neighborhoods.
"We’re not taking a net and getting the good fish caught," said Burgess, who took over the department after former Chief Eddie Driggers became a special assistant to the mayor. "That's one of the things that’s really helped."
'Doing something right'
Last year's bloodshed claimed the lives of young children, teenagers, mothers and fathers. The toll of killings rippled across the community, extending well beyond the families of victims and suspects.
Residents in neighborhoods where homicides happened most frequently have described jumping at the sound of a car backfiring, mistaking the noise for a gunshot. In July, children who showed up at summer camp on the city's southern end were met with police tape where the body of a slain teen lay crumpled nearby. Relatives of victims said they no longer felt safe in their own homes.
In response, Summey pointed out that the city's homicides had fallen to the single digits in years past, with only five killings in 2011. But that was because of the department's former aggressive policing approach, he said.
The number of traffic stops so far in 2018 is on par with last year. Police made 4,553 stops through the end of March. There were 17,801 in 2017, a police spokesman said.
Last week, Summey said Burgess has his "full support" for policing South Carolina's third-largest city.
"I'm just leaving it up to the chief and letting him try the techniques that he wants to use," Summey said. "As long as it's working, he's gonna be happy, I'm gonna be happy, the public's gonna be happy."
Summey said Burgess has shown he's not the type of chief to administer from the office.
One afternoon last month, Burgess and other community leaders marched to the spot in the Dorchester-Waylyn neighborhood where a 27-year-old man had been shot and killed the previous weekend. Later that day, nearly 100 people gathered to remember the slain neighborhood resident, Kayron Mitchell.
Burgess couldn’t make it to the vigil, but he later watched a video of the emotional gathering. Grieving young men and women called for anyone with information about the unsolved crime to come forward to police. At one point, Burgess said, ministers and others thanked the department for trying to help stop the violence.
"A tear came to my eye," he said. "I saw the people show love toward us. ... It was like, my goodness, so we’re doing something right. It may not be the best, but we’re doing something. We’re making a start."
Burgess knows the pain families are suffering. In 2010, his 31-year-old nephew, Angelo President, was shot and killed in North Charleston. The homicide remains unsolved.
He has said that as long as there are homicides under his watch, he'll reach out to the victims' mothers and march in their communities.
"I didn’t know them," he said of the victims this year, "but I feel as if they were my sons. I feel sorry for the family because I’ve been through it and I know how it feels."
Thomas Ravenell, a North Charleston pastor, helped organize the vigil for Mitchell and has supported other families touched by homicides. He thinks gaining residents’ trust is key to solving and reducing crime. Too often, community leaders promise to help neighborhoods like Dorchester-Waylyn but never follow through, he said.
The chief's "Stop the Violence" marches are a step in the right direction, Ravenell said.
"We have to build a better relationship between the community and the Police Department. That's a big start with him being out," he said.
Members of the North Charleston Citizens' Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations — a group that formed partly in response to Scott's shooting death — were encouraged by three goals Burgess presented for his department, commission Chairman Keon Rhodan said. The chief has prioritized forming partnerships with the community, reducing violent crime and creating safe neighborhoods.
Rhodan recently struck up conversation with a North Charleston officer who said he was pleased with Burgess' ride-alongs that show an effort to involve all officers, not just his command staff, in discussions on how to improve the agency.
Supporters regard Burgess as calm and genuine but firm when it comes to curbing crime. Rhodan said he's approachable, which signals to residents that they can go to him with their concerns.
"The community respects him," he said.
Burgess is the city's first black police chief, which he called "truly a blessing." A poster in his office pays respect to his local roots. "I am a product of my environment," the poster reads. On it are childhood photos of him growing up in North Charleston neighborhoods such as Liberty Hill, Union Heights and the George Legare housing projects.
Burgess said he made missteps in his youth. Then he devoted his energy to football, playing wide receiver at Maryland's Morgan State University before returning to his hometown and joining the police force in 1989.
Black males accounted for 31 of the 35 homicide victims last year. Burgess said he tells young black men that slaves in America didn't survive horrendous abuses to see their offspring kill one another: "They survived so we would have an opportunity in this nation to prosper."
In the Chicora-Cherokee community, neighborhood association President Rebecca Rushton and other residents know Burgess simply as "Reggie." Rushton said she's impressed by his leadership and the ways he "humanizes" his role as police chief.
By late last year, she and her neighbors had grown frustrated and frightened by the frequency of violent crime that hit too close to home. Some wanted to move but couldn't afford it.
But lately, gunshots in the middle of the night don't seem as frequent, Rushton said. She and her neighbors recently remarked on this tranquility, saying they can only hope the summer months don't again bring an onslaught of gunfire.