Show up to build trust in police

Walter Scott. who was killed by a North Charleston police officer last year. (Photo provided)

One year and five days ago, Walter Scott was fatally shot by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. When a cellphone video of the incident surfaced, showing the white officer firing multiple shots at the black man fleeing from a traffic stop in broad daylight, the tragic story immediately became high-profile national news.

And while neither North Charleston nor any other nearby community erupted in violence as some other U.S. cities have after racially charged police shootings, there was no denying that the case exacerbated long-standing tension between parts of the community — particularly African Americans — and the police.

This week’s four-day Post and Courier series titled “The Walter Scott Effect” plainly shows that those tensions persist —and might have even gotten worse — since Mr. Scott’s death.

Unfortunately, North Charleston’s mayor and police chief are adding to the strain by giving the impression that they aren’t fully committed to making necessary changes.

Yes, Police Chief Eddie Driggers has spent a lot of time in the community, talking with residents and trying to develop relationships one by one.

That’s admirable, but not as effective as it would be to approach the problem systemically. North Charleston needs to implement policies that ensure its police policies are consistent and transparent. It also needs to let the broader community know about those changes — including a commitment to reduce racial profiling and what minority residents understandably regard as unnecessary traffic stops that are tantamount to harassment.

Yet North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Chief Driggers have declined invitations to attend a meeting on April 18 sponsored by the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston. Their rejections of that opportunity were confirmed Friday by a city spokesperson.

Planners expect more than 2,000 people to attend, representing diverse faiths, races, ages and economic resources. The topic for the meeting is racial discrimination in police practices.

Surely the mayor of the city where the killing of Walter Scott attracted such widespread attention should want to hear anything that might help North Charleston and its police department bolster public trust in the authorities.

In contrast, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg has accepted an invitation to attend the meeting.

But Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen has declined that invitation, a decision confirmed Friday by his spokesman.

That’s too bad. The CAJM is not untested. It has successfully persuaded community leaders — for the schools and for local police departments — to help mitigate community problems.

Members annually choose a subject to address, research it thoroughly for a year, gather that hard data and then do national research for solutions that have worked elsewhere.

Indeed, Mayor Summey has attended a previous CAJM meeting, as has Chief Driggers. They might have found it uncomfortable for so many people to ask them to commit publicly to new practices. But it’s unlikely that they would fail to find it illuminating.

By turning what looks like a deaf ear, North Charleston’s leaders will not win the trust of residents who feel estranged. And all sides correctly agree that such trust is the most important tool a police department can have for keeping a community safe.

Some have called for North Charleston to establish a citizens’ board with investigative powers to oversee city officials and police. The mayor has refused, with tangible reason. He said the public elects City Council to run the city, and that it will not cede its authority.

But CAJM has other ideas that might well be palatable to Mayor Summey. For example, it is proposing that the city, along with Charleston, Mount Pleasant and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department, agree to an external independent audit of their police policies and practices.

Similar audits have been done across the country, producing helpful insights.

Data presented in “The Walter Scott Effect” series show that while overall traffic stops have declined in North Charleston, African Americans are still pulled over by police at a far greater rate than others. That unbalanced equation erodes trust.

So does the justified perception that Mayor Summey and Chief Driggers are adopting a defensive stance instead of fully engaging community leaders on these issues.

North Charleston’s leadership needs to recognize that a spirited dialogue can lead to significant improvements.

And enhanced public trust in law enforcement will help the police fulfill their vital duty to protect and serve.