A half-dozen North Charleston police officers walked hurriedly down the middle of Kimbell Road. One broke into a jog. Yards along the cracked roadway were littered with abandoned vehicles, discarded beer bottles and shattered windows.
The Midland Park neighborhood near Interstate 26 suffers some of the area's highest crime rates. On Friday, a man was shot on an unincorporated property along the roadway and showed up bleeding at a stranger's doorstep.
On this day, officers from the North Charleston Police Department branched from their pack, scurried down driveways and pounded on doors: "North Charleston police!" Dogs barked on the end of taut chains. Residents hesitantly opened doors.
But the officers didn't have search warrants Thursday. They were making no arrests.
Instead, they carried fluorescent light bulbs. Giving residents a cost-effective way to light their entryways is one of the police department's ideas for stemming a recent tide of burglaries in the community.
"It's nice to see the public on good terms," said Pfc. Maria Leahy, the officer directing the effort. "We're having that interaction we wouldn't have otherwise, to let them know we're here."
It's operations like this one, which distributed nearly 1,000 bulbs last week, that Police Chief Jon Zumalt partly credited for reducing the city's violent crime rate to its lowest level since 1985, the first year for which complete statistics are available. The rate has fallen by 75 percent since its peak in 1996.
With a 3 percent increase from 2010, burglary was the only crime that North Charleston saw more of last year. But with the city's drop in violence, Zumalt said he could dedicate more resources to property crimes, which he sees as surging amid a continually depressed economy.
"Violent crime in this city is a perception that developed over a long period," said Zumalt, who has led the department for a decade. "That's one thing that challenged us. But violence has subsided significantly, and we've been able to do that without alienating our community."
'Sell the stop'
To deflect North Charleston's stereotype as one of the Lowcountry's most crime-ridden cities, Zumalt has focused on aggressively reacting to crime in recent years.
Every two weeks, at the department's headquarters, commanding officers gather for "CompStat" meetings in which they map out computer-tracked crime trends and discuss how to address them. It's a program modeled after similar ones in Miami and Newark, N.J.
Their response methods range from increasing patrols in problematic areas to distributing the lights bulbs.
After a shooting, for example, a team of detectives, chaplains and victims advocates are sent into the neighborhood and stays there for 14 days in hopes of stifling retaliation.
Zumalt said officers also "proactively" patrol the roadways, stopping vehicles for what some critics call minor violations.
The number of traffic stops citywide increased by about 3,000 to nearly 64,000 in 2011.
For Zumalt, stopping motorists and pedestrians is a way to ensure they're complying with the law. And his "sell the stop" initiative --in which officers explain why they were patrolling the area and why the stop was made -- is a way to enforce the law without alienating residents, he said.
But the initiative has polarized some residents whose communities are targeted.
Dot Scott, president of Charleston's NAACP but a North Charleston resident, lives northwest of the Midland Park community. She has been stopped by police officers twice during road blocks, and once for operating without headlights.
In an interview, Zumalt said statistics show that the highest crime rates show up in the poor, black communities of North Charleston, which have received the increased police patrols. But Scott said the practice is unfair and that ticketing people in those communities will continue to depress them economically.
"Most of these people are law-abiding citizens," Scott said. "Simply because you live in the area, the officers have carte blanche to do whatever they want."
North Charleston Deputy Chief Dave Cheatle, who runs the biweekly "CompStat" meetings, said Scott's concerns were not widespread. Scott herself is frustrated because few people are vocal about the issue, she said.
"We hope people understand why we do this," Cheatle said. "But we don't make any apologies."
Scott said that the tax revenue should go back into the community from which it came, to help construct community centers and recreation facilities.
James Johnson, pastor of The Church of the New Creation, similarly called for more money for such areas. During a news conference Monday, he asked area municipalities to put $3 million toward community centers and recreation facilities, especially in North Charleston.
"The moral fiber of the black community is decaying," Johnson said. "We have young people eating drugs and dying. We have young people getting shot. We need help."
But on Kimbell Road, a matter of houses from where a 19-year-old man was shot outside a nightclub Friday night, 23-year-old Aliya Ross accepted a light bulb from the officer who showed up at her mobile home. She said the gesture was a step in the right direction.
"This really helps," Ross said. "It shows they actually care for citizens in this neighborhood."
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414