While local officials said Tuesday that an examination of North Charleston’s police force remains on track, it's unclear whether a new U.S. Department of Justice mandate will affect the reform effort.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed his agency to inspect a wide range of measures related to law enforcement departments nationwide to ensure, among other things, that the federal government isn't meddling in the management of local police.
Some saw his announcement as a potential threat to court-approved reforms spawned by Justice Department civil rights investigations of police agencies; Sessions has denounced such “consent decrees” before.
Unlike those probes, though, the initiative in North Charleston came at city officials’ own request after Walter Scott, a black man, was fatally shot by police officer Michael Slager in April 2015. The "collaborative reform initiative" by the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services is expected to wrap up this summer with a list of recommendations.
North Charleston Police Department spokesman Spencer Pryor said Tuesday that the agency had not heard of any shifts as a result of the development, adding that officials still “look forward to working with the DOJ on this project.”
Spokeswoman Najla Haywood of the COPS office said she could not discuss the issue, referring questions to Justice Department headquarters. Requests for comment there were not immediately returned.
Slager is charged with murder in state court and a civil rights violation in federal court in connection with Scott's death, which was captured on video.
Released Monday, a memo from Sessions said his Justice Department would aim to fight crime, guard civil rights and implement best practices. But he wrote that the "misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn" honorable police officers' work to keep Americans safe.
The review will target "collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees, and task force participation," the memo stated.
Sessions stressed, though, that his order shouldn't impede any pending criminal investigation. A meeting last month between Slager's attorneys and Washington officials raised eyebrows but also was not expected to disrupt the prosecution.
Former U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, who supported the COPS review last year, said it "remains to be seen how the broad language" in Sessions' memo would be applied by department officials.
"New administrations have the authority to change policy," he said. "But it's often been a hallmark of the Department of Justice to maintain consistency from administration to administration as much as possible."