Welcome the Justice Department to North Charleston, any way we can

Last spring, in the aftermath of Walter Scott’s death, North Charleston officials quietly invited Justice Department officials to town for a chat.

Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers wanted the feds’ advice on how to deal with a problem that, escalating for years, had reached a crescendo.

The North Charleston Police Department has long been criticized as overzealous, overbearing and biased toward blacks. Scott’s death had gone a long way toward proving it. There, on video, was a North Charleston cop gunning down an unarmed, running man who fled from a traffic stop and briefly struggled with an officer.

It was a horrible image, a senseless death, yet the community — for all its suspicions and misgivings — did not descend into the ugly civil unrest that has plagued so many cities across the nation.

That is a credit to the Lowcountry. North Charleston’s request for a Justice Department review of police practices is, as well.

The DOJ meeting last year was an encouraging sign the city was serious about doing something — especially since it wasn’t played out before the cameras at a time when the city could have used some good publicity.

Unfortunately, it does not go far enough for some. That’s fair. But it’s once again time to show a little restraint.

The differences between what the city has requested and groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund want is more than semantics.

North Charleston has requested assistance from the DOJ’s Community Oriented Police Services office to help improve community relations and fund impartial police training.

The COPS program is a one-year study of department practices that will come with a slate of recommendations that, it’s true, the city can ignore if it so chooses.

That’s a good point from critics. But then, why ask for the recommendations? Short-term public relations? That would be dumb because any recommendation they ignore will open the department up to even harsher criticism.

People are not going to let this go. There were 2,000 people at the Justice Ministry gathering last week who demand action, and they aren’t going anywhere.

Some people instead want a “pattern-or-practice” civil rights investigation from DOJ. Such an investigation would result in court orders mandating compliance. That’s great, but that process takes far longer and, if Justice were compelled to jump in, you’d think they would have done it by now.

Because North Charleston needs help — sooner rather than later. So let’s take what we can get for now.

A decade ago, North Charleston was one of the most violent cities in America.

Under Chief Jon Zumalt, the department cracked down and wrestled North Charleston out of the top 10 — and top 100 — most dangerous cities. But in doing so, they opened themselves up to criticism of heavy-handed tactics that, honestly, was not new.

Some people have always claimed the North Charleston force was too aggressive. Perhaps anyone would be if they were dealing with that sort of crime. Their job is to keep people safe, and the civil rights versus safety debate is not confined to North Chuck.

We need outside perspective, and not just for one side. There are a lot of good people on the force who do a good job for low pay, and it isn’t fair to taint them all with the Scott shooting.

But we have issues. The city is 47 percent black, but about 60 percent of traffic stops involved black motorists. That statistic alone is proof for many folks there’s a problem.

But the Justice Department is going to find that North Charleston police, like any department, concentrates its resources and patrols in areas where crime is the worst. Usually that means less-affluent areas of town — areas that are heavy in minority population. The shorthand is to translate that into black neighborhoods, which is neither fair nor good.

What the COPS program needs to determine is how much of that disparity in traffic stops is a result of where police patrol and how much is based on profiling.

That should be the No. 1 goal here.

The answers might not be as easy as some think. There are a lot of people who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods who don’t want to see fewer patrols on their block.

North Charleston has already cut back on investigatory stops, but it’s too soon to see what, if any, impact that has on the crime rate.

Ultimately, there needs to be a way for the community and police to not be at odds, for people not to interpret police presence as a threat but as what it’s meant to be: public safety.

It’s a delicate balance. There cannot be another Walter Scott. His death has shaken the community out of its apathy, and that is the only good thing to come of that tragedy.

At the same time, we don’t need to turn the clock back a decade, to a time when North Charleston was one of the most dangerous places in the country.

We need a balance, and hopefully the Justice Department can help North Charleston find it — one way or another.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.