The City of North Charleston’s swift response to the shooting death of Walter Scott by a police officer is credited with helping avert the kind of violence that followed police shootings in other cities.
But it didn’t eliminate the tension and distrust between the community and the North Charleston Police Department that has existed for years.
So just over a year later, city officials have asked the U.S. Department of Justice for help in improving relations between the NCPD and the community.
It is a wise move. The community needs confidence that the department is being fair, efficient and effective. And while city officials stress that the NCPD is striving to be all of those things, they acknowledge that there is room for improvement.
Last week, Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers wrote to the DOJ to request assistance from its Community Oriented Policing Services department (COPS). The plan would be for it to spend three years assessing the NCPD, recommending changes and overseeing their implementation along the way.
Mayor Summey stressed that the city opted for the most intensive scrutiny that COPS offers, not because it is being required but because it should provide the most comprehensive perspective.
Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston branch of the NAACP, said this effort falls short. He contends that the department needs to be the object of a formal federal civil rights investigation, producing mandatory fixes.
That might prove necessary. The city is not bound to make the changes recommended by COPS.
Still, city officials say they plan to conform to every suggestion as much as possible.
And as the reports from COPS to the city are public information, the community — including the NAACP — will have ample opportunity to hold the city accountable. They should do just that.
It certainly appears that some goals of the COPS program would address NAACP concerns, including reducing police violence against people of color in North Charleston; developing accountability systems to ensure meaningful reform of law enforcement practices; improving community-police relations; training to reduce de-escalate tensions; and facilitating unbiased, responsible police practices.
To that end, Mayor Summey said the city is reinvigorating a community advisory board that was formed years ago, but has lost steam. He expects to bolster it with additional members — one chosen by each city council member, one by the mayor and one by the local the NAACP president. The panel will also add two high school students.
Because of the Walter Scott shooting, the NCPD spent months collecting data about the department, its arrests, traffic stops and the race of those pulled over, crime rates and more. That information should enable COPS to move ahead more quickly with interviews, observations, analysis and conclusions.
The North Charleston Police Department, like many across the country, has been held up for criticism regarding perceived racial discrimination. For the good of the entire community, the NCPD must turn that perception around — either by disproving it or changing it.
Doing anything less would dishonor the memory of Walter Scott, imperil the city and further undermine the trust needed between the public and the police officers whose mission is to protect and serve.