After the 2015 killing of Walter Scott — which ultimately resulted in a 20-year federal sentence for Officer Michael Slager — North Charleston invited the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Division to review of the city’s policing practices. It was a review city officials and members of the community hoped could improve trust of the department and lead to meaningful reforms.
But then President Donald Trump took office in 2017, and the department shut down that program and refused to release any of its work to the city or others.
It was a crushing and disappointing setback to North Charleston’s effort to improve its police department: Federal officials had spent months interviewing residents, observing police officers and analyzing agency policies. When it abandoned that work, a program spokeswoman said, “We are here to provide assistance and support, not wide-ranging assessments and progress reports.” Talk about a cop-out.
Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the COPS Collaborative Reform Initiative needed to focus its efforts on battling violent crime rather than “expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments.” Sherrilyn Ifill, of the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense Fund civil rights group, said at the time that Mr. Sessions was “deliberately dismantling the building blocks needed for comprehensive policing reform.”
To its credit, the city eventually moved on and is paying $283,000 to a private consultant to review its department. The Virginia-based CNA held local listening sessions in early April, and we urge city residents to remain engaged with the process so it produces the best possible outcome. We agree with North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess when he said, "The more of you that are engaged to help us with the audit, the better we will be as an agency."
But the Justice Department still has in its files a nearly if not entirely completed review of the agency — under pressure, the agency eventually released hundreds of pages of redacted, unreadable and unusable pages of information to community members — that could assist in this effort. Even if it’s too old to help identify current problems and potential solutions — and frankly, the only way to know if it contains useful information is to release it in the light of day — the fact is that the federal government spent our tax dollars producing it, and we have a right to see it.
Daniel O’Neal co-chaired a city advisory commission that allowed community leaders and residents to learn more about the department’s inner workings, and he wants to see the report. As he told us: “The citizens of North Charleston deserve to see the report. They participated in the fact-gathering process and were promised that they would get to see the results. Transparency is critical to rebuilding community-police relations in North Charleston.”
With the Biden Justice Department’s decision to reengage — Attorney General Merrick Garland opened a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department following the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the videotaped murder of George Floyd, and followed that up on Monday by announcing an investigation into Louisville police — it’s time for North Charleston officials to reengage as well.
Chief Burgess and Mayor Keith Summey need to remind the Justice Department that it has an important study that the public has never had a chance to review. A study that we have a right to see.
Chief Burgess is making progress; his department was reaccredited last year at an advanced level by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
And we have every hope that CNA’s work there will bear as much fruit as it did in Charleston, where the police department is implementing several reforms recommended in a similar audit completed in 2019.
But just as more public participation in the current review will help North Charleston police improve, the same goes for more expert feedback, such as what the Justice Department began to work on, then covered up.