2,000 people are worth hearing

The Rev. Charles Heyward, from St. James Presbyterian Church, gives the vision statement for the fourth annual Charleston Area Justice Ministry Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday night at Mount Moriah Baptist Church. (BRAD NETTLES/STAFF)

The 2,000 people who showed up Monday night to confront racial discrimination and police practices were right to be disappointed. Some of the key people they had invited to hear their message opted to stay away.

Their absence suggested to some that North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers and Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen weren’t interested enough to attend. Even if they disagree with the findings of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, they missed an opportunity to explain — albeit briefly — their thoughts on the subject.

But perhaps they wouldn’t have disagreed once they heard the reports and saw how many people have issues with police practices. At the least, they missed an opportunity to pick up information and to connect with citizens — something police departments have been striving to do more effectively.

After a year of concentrated research, the CAJM has concluded that investigatory stops by police should be reined in. And it contends that both city police departments should undergo an independent police audit.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg attended. And while he didn’t say “yes” to their specific requests, he did assure the assemblage that the city “will work with you to reduce racial discrimination.”

Two of the four Charleston City Council members who attended agreed to advocate for the CAJM’s requests.

North Charleston City Councilman Mike Brown, the only North Charleston official to attend, agreed to get behind the group’s initiatives.

And the four Charleston County School Board members who attended said “yes” to a different goal. They agreed to work on a plan to implement restorative practices in district schools where the CAJM says the arrest rate of adolescents is far too high. The school board has reported that 1,000 arrests were made in the period from August 2014 to December 2015.

The North Charleston officials who chose not to attend said they did so because of their concerns about the methodology of the annual meeting. Officials to whom a message was being delivered were allowed a limited amount of time to respond to yes-or-no questions. If guests really feel they are being treated with disrespect, CAJM should review its methodology.

Still, while the process can feel uncomfortable or even hostile, it’s a lot less intimidating than being stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason.

The group has a reason for its format: Public officials have an open forum at any time to address the public. This meeting is intended for the public to address public officials with specific constructive ideas for improving the community.

The group’s call for more restraint in the practice of investigatory stops, the majority of which involve black drivers, is not without controversy. Police departments typically make those stops in an attempt to reduce crime — to let the community know they are being vigilant.

But citizens say they feel unfairly singled out and bullied. Indeed, Charleston and North Charleston top every other city in South Carolina in the number of such stops. From 2011 to 2015, the NCPD made 130,000 stops without arrests. The CPD made 127,000. By comparison, Columbia had 33,000.

The ministerial group also wants an external, independent police auditor to assess the policing practices of both departments. Those reviews could help departments find more equitable ways to fight crime.

Both Charleston and North Charleston suffered from high-profile tragedies last year. Nine people were killed as they studied the Bible at Mother Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun Street. And a cellphone video showed NCPD officer Michael Slager fatally shooting Walter Scott multiple times in the back as he ran away at a traffic stop.

Both communities want assurances that their police forces are doing the best they can to protect them, and city officials are the ones who should be explaining to them how they are doing so. If 2,000 people think that police can do better, it’s worth the dialogue.

Those members of the Charleston County School Board who attended the meeting apparently recognize that the number of school arrests is unacceptable. County residents should be happy to know that those representatives were willing to listen to the criticism and to try to address the problem.