North Charleston's police force is rising from its darkest hour two years ago, when one of its own shot Walter Scott in the back, several longtime critics, supporters and residents said.

Public complaints about officers in 2016 have hit one of their lowest levels in 12 years. A police advisory commission made up of residents was formed to make suggestions to improve community ties. An ongoing Department of Justice review, unchanged by the new presidential administration, also is expected to recommend further reforms.

If they persist, many observers said, these efforts may help the North Charleston Police Department shake a troubled past, pocked with allegations of excessive force, unlawful searches and patrolling tactics that affected black communities the most. A video of the death of Scott, a black man, at the hands of a white patrolman on April 4, 2015, opened that history to worldwide scrutiny.

"I've been pretty frustrated with North Charleston over the years," said Dot Scott, a city resident and president of the Charleston NAACP chapter. "Habits don't change overnight, but I think we're in an improved place now."

Elements of troubled times remain, however.

One person alleged recently that an officer who arrested him said the department had a reputation for locking up people and killing them. And the agency has disciplined two employees who shared information with the Charleston Thug Life blog, which exposed Lowcountry criminals in a way that some considered racially charged.

Overall, though, formal complaints about the force dropped to 20 last year, 10 fewer than the annual average since 2005 and far shy of the 68 in 2012, department records showed.

City Councilman Ron Brinson sees officers getting more involved with community sporting events. They're sitting on front porches. They're committing random acts of kindness, like buying a bicycle for a child.

"They want folks to see the Police Department in full-throttle service mode," Brinson said. "They are trying really, really hard, and I think they're making progress."

A written statement from Police Chief Eddie Driggers highlighted the department's "spotlight walks," when groups of officers tour communities and greet residents. Investigators have also built a system for better communication with crime victims.

"Our established relationships continue to improve," Driggers stated, "and we work daily to develop new relationships and trust with the citizens we serve."

'Better' but at a cost?

Officer Michael Slager pulled over Scott's car because of a broken brake light.

It was the kind of policing that critics long lamented: a traffic stop for a minor violation that could uncover more serious crime. The practice was often employed in predominately black neighborhoods that struggle with drugs and violence.

Scott, 50, ran and soon struggled with Slager, who said Scott grabbed his Taser. The officer said he fired in self-defense.

But eyewitness Feidin Santana's video showed the stun gun hitting the ground as Scott turned and ran away. The officer fired eight shots, hitting Scott five times. The footage prompted the lawman's arrest.

City officials said the frequency of traffic stops had waned before the shooting, but they plummeted after, according to S.C. Department of Public Safety statistics. One measure is traffic stops that result in warnings. The most recent data shows that 18,000 warnings were issued in the 22 months since Scott's death — a 63 percent drop from the 49,000 in the same prior period.

The stops used to prompt complaints to James Johnson, a local resident and state president of the National Action Network.

"It's a lot better," he said. "I just don't want to see it go back to what it used to be like before Walter Scott."

But leaders continue to ask whether this change has come at a cost. North Charleston saw 32 homicides in 2016, its deadliest year.

"We can't ignore the higher crime," Brinson said.

Slager's attorney, Andy Savage of Charleston, said he has met with many officers in preparation for the trials. Morale in the force dipped after Scott's shooting, Savage said, though some officials said it has improved.

But officers still fear becoming embroiled in controversies that threaten their livelihood, Savage said.

"North Charleston is much less safe than it was two years ago because the police are not out there risking their jobs and their freedom to get drugs off the street, to find guns, to reduce crime," he said. "The pendulum has swung too far."

'Work in progress'

Some advocates are still troubled by reports of some confrontations but encouraged by how they're handled.

Johnson said he pushed the police to aggressively examine a November traffic stop that left James Terry, a black man, with a swollen face.

He lauded officials for following through. Officer Leroy Hair was fired and later arrested, accused of assaulting the shackled Terry in a patrol car.

"The police chief needs to know what's happening on the street," Johnson said.

Councilwoman Dorothy Williams said many remain too quick to criticize. The local Black Lives Matter group, she said, faulted the arrest of six students involved in a disturbance on school bus in February. Other civil rights activists, including Johnson, came to the officers' defense.

"Some people felt they got ammunition from the Scott shooting," Williams said. "To keep it going, they keep hammering at the police for any old thing. ... But I feel so good about the way things are going now."

Internal investigators also have held some officers accountable.

Last year, the police filed 51 complaints about other department members, 38 of which were sustained. Five officers were suspended.

Half of the 20 complaints from the public in 2016 were substantiated. One officer was fired and two got written reprimands. And for the first time since at least 2005, internal investigators confirmed two accusations of racial bias.

According to one complaint, a 33-year-old black man was pulled over in July for leaving his blinker light on too long without turning. The officer reported smelling drugs, searching the car and finding marijuana.

But the man alleged that the stop and search were unlawful, according to a complaint, and investigators sustained the accusation.

Then in December, an officer came across a driver whose loud music rattled a nearby home's windows. The 24-year-old black man said he was "exercising his freedom of speech," a report stated. He refused to hand over his identification for a ticket, so he was arrested, the officer reported.

But the man's complaint said the officer had discussed the reputation of the North Charleston police, making the motorist uncomfortable. "They kill and lock people up," the document stated, paraphrasing the officer's alleged words.

That allegation wasn't immediately resolved, but body-worn cameras have helped sort out others. In May, an officer struggling to arrest a combative woman was captured on video saying, "Get the leg shackles. Punish the (expletive)," a complaint stated.

The city bought the cameras after Scott's death, and state legislators voted to require them on police officers statewide. "It's being put to good use," said Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who pushed for the law.

It's difficult to judge how the cameras are being used, though, because their footage is not considered public information.

And not all observers paint a rosy picture of how problems are being handled.

Ed Bryant, president of the NAACP branch in the city, said he still fields reports of overbearing policing.

"I see how many times North Charleston is being sued, and I don't see them learning a lesson," he said. "There is still work to be done."

Bryant mentioned the 2012 case of 17-year-old Carlton Pringle, who was shot in the back by an officer. Surveillance video showed Pringle running from the officer but also pointing what the police said was a gun. 

A recent $500,000 settlement of Pringle's lawsuit let the city avoid trial, which Bryant contended might have shown how the incident could have been better handled.

Authorities cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.

Detractors and supporters alike, though, said no police force can be perfect even after learning from its mistakes.

"There are always going to be complaints," said Justin Bamberg, a state representative and an attorney for Scott's family. "It's a work in progress. The problems were not created overnight, and the relationship with the community will not improve overnight."

'Way to work together'

Further changes are expected in the coming year.

Many welcomed the city's announcement last year that the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, would examine procedures for traffic stops, uses of force and misconduct investigations.

But some endorsed the effort only half-heartedly, arguing that it would not expose any unconstitutional practices that a federal civil rights investigation would. With President Donald Trump's attorney general voicing a lack of support for such probes, advocates said the COPS review holds the most promise.

There is no indication that the new administration has peeled back that effort. COPS spokeswoman Najla Haywood said the team was finalizing its assessment and planning to release a report this summer.

Bill Nettles, who was South Carolina's top federal prosecutor when city officials announced the measure, said he hoped Washington would not abandon other initiatives to improve policing nationwide.

"If nothing is done and the community has a problem, it makes them crazy," said Nettles, now a private attorney. "That's where you get civil unrest."

Mass protests and violence never materialized here.

Instead, Nettles said he sees disparate voices coming together to effect change. He was hired to shape the Citizens' Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations, whose members were appointed by the City Council to inspect policies, complaints and practices.

The panel has met only twice, but Nettles expects its work to "carry weight" for the police.

"We're going to get many good ideas to address the issues," said member Tony Grasso, a businessman and resident of the Russelldale neighborhood since 1984.

“And the elephant in the room is that we know North Charleston has had issues.”

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Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.

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