Police, citizen teamwork vital

People gather to protest the shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston Police officer during a #BlackLivesMatterCHS demonstration against Police Violence Wednesday, April 8, 2015 in front of North Charleston City Hall. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

Seven years ago, the North Charleston Police Department asked clergy members and teachers to work with the department as “peacemakers.” After a killing in the city, they acted as a calming presence and tried to discourage vengeance.

That concept is still relevant, and it’s a good time to re-energize it.

But it will take more than community liaisons to rebuild damaged trust in the police department. The shooting of Walter Scott by Michael Slager has rubbed salt in an already painful wound.

Mayor Keith Summey has promised to start a community discussion about police policies this spring. The sooner, the better.

Beyond looking for ways to improve existing policies or implement new ones, the city should consider a model used in communities nationwide to increase civilian oversight of police operations.

According to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, there are more than 100 citizen review boards in cities and counties around the country. No such organization exists in South Carolina.

But there are plenty of reasons to consider changing that.

Patrick Hunter, the executive officer with the San Diego Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board, said his organization receives more than 150 complaints per year and investigates about two-thirds of those.

The board reviews complaints regarding the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, as well as county probation and corrections officers. Areas of investigation include excessive force, discrimination, harassment and police-involved fatalities, among other violations.

While the board’s decisions are advisory only, they offer a vital chance for community input on a range of law enforcement-related issues. And watchful community eyes alone can help ensure that police operations are by the book.

“Sometimes it’s the smaller changes that work out,” said Mr. Hunter. “The Sheriff’s Department knows we’re there.”

If the “peacemakers” worked in North Charleston, surely a group of ordinary citizens could meet regularly with community residents and police brass to assess how things are going.

Is crime under control? Are officers treating people fairly and respectfully? What should be done to address problems that are identified?

Citizens might not know all that police are taught before putting on a badge, but they know when something is working well for the community — or not working at all.

Take, for example, the practice of police stopping cars on some minor pretext when they’re actually looking for an excuse to search the cars for illegal drugs or weapons. Some in the community see it as harassment. Some police see it as a way to reduce crime. Maybe they could find common ground.

Ursula Price, director of community relations with the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor, said that organization arose not just out of the need for greater accountability, but also to help restore a healthy relationship between police and the community they serve.

The IPM is immediately alerted when serious incidents involving police occur, providing a measure of civilian oversight in the process. Though New Orleans police initially resisted such intrusion, department officials soon realized that civilian presence helped eliminate uncertainty about how situations were handled.

Unfortunately, it took a disaster to highlight the need to work together to bridge longstanding divides between New Orleans police and residents.

“Hurricane Katrina exposed things that have been plaguing this community for decades in a way that people couldn’t ignore anymore,” said Ms. Price. “In that sense our tragedy is also a blessing. Maybe this will be a blessing for your community.”

It should not take another terrible loss to bring about a serious effort to improve relations between Lowcountry police and the communities they work to protect. The death of Mr. Scott must not result in a return to the status quo.

Creating a strong forum for public oversight to address persistent problems in police-community interactions would be a good step towards preventing tragedies in the future.