Consider oversight of police

A small cross and a few flowers still mark the site where Walter Scott died after being fatally shot on April 4 by former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. The flowers and other memorial tributes are now gone from the fence a month later on May 4, 2015. (Wade Spees/Staff)

All of the citizen comments at the end of a North Charleston City Council meeting on May 14 shared a common theme: The city needs a citizen police review board.

North Charleston leaders have heard the call before. A chorus of local community leaders and members of Black Lives Matter Charleston made better community oversight of the police department a central component of cries for reform in the wake of the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by a city police officer on April 4.

Concerns over the thoroughness and impartiality of State Law Enforcement Division investigations of officer-involved shootings, raised in The Post and Courier’s ongoing, five-day series “Shots Fired,” further highlight the importance of strong oversight.

Elected city officials should advance the idea. More than 100 citizen police review boards exist around the country, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Some have made dramatic strides toward improving the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve.

While the legal authority, composition and effectiveness of those organizations vary considerably, North Charleston deserves a serious discussion about how the city could benefit from a board — or a comparable alternative — of its own.

As Mayor Keith Summey said during that recent council meeting, the discussion needs to focus broadly on “the violence that’s going on in our communities today, all around.”

“Since Mr. Scott was shot, we’ve had eight young men shot in the city of North Charleston. We had a mother killed the other day,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is look at what programs we’re doing in the community. We need to enhance how we stop this violence that’s going on in the community.”

Indeed, violence remains an urgent concern in many parts of North Charleston, and residents deserve substantial, long-term efforts to improve safety. Mending and strengthening the relationship between police and the community they serve could go a long way toward achieving that goal.

To that end, Charleston area community leaders and North Charleston police officers met recently with Walter Atkinson, a senior conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice. Mayor Summey sought Mr. Atkinson’s aid in starting a community dialogue.

Mr. Summey, who handled the immediate aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting with admirable resolve, must continue his outreach efforts. The city’s leadership must demonstrate an active commitment to the longer term effort to mend community and police relations in North Charleston. The public must also be allowed to participate.

The meeting between Mr. Atkinson and community leaders took place behind closed doors, but every North Charleston citizen shares a strong interest in the future of police and community relations. Future meetings should be open to all.

Surely any number of ideas could improve the degree of respect and cooperation between North Charleston police and the city’s residents.

It’s time for community members to speak, and for elected officials to hear their concerns.