The Charleston Area Justice Ministry held the annual assembly Monday night at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in North Charleston. An audience of around 2,000 gathered to discuss solutions regarding school-based arrests and discriminatory police practices.
Over the past few weeks, the stories surrounding the event have focused less on which local leaders were planning to attend and more on those refusing to make an appearance — namely North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers. While those two city officials have faced a barrage of criticism for opting out of the meeting, Driggers attributed his absence to what he described as CAJM’s “bullying tactics.”
The methods that the police chief mentioned are part of CAJM’s rules of order which dictate that officials in attendance provide “ yes” or “no” answers to CAJM’s questions regarding the group’s proposed solutions. This year, Justice Ministry members dedicated its efforts to researching the issues of student arrests and investigatory stops by police, and from that work, the group developed a series of initiatives aimed at solving these problems. Following each answer, officials were given 30 seconds to explain their positions before the microphone was turned off. It was at this point that Justice Ministry leaders would speak at length on the proposed merits of their requests before asking the questions once again.
CAJM representatives said that officials were given the questions prior to the assembly, so no one would be surprised by any of the group’s requests — even though they may act that way. The meeting was punctuated by call-and-response chants of “Stop arresting. Start restoring” and “We want to build trust — for all of us” that continued throughout the evening.
The first line of questioning went to the four members of the Charleston County School Board in attendance — Kate Darby, Michael Miller, Rev. Chris Collins, and Rev. Eric Mack. CAJM reported that of Charleston County students ages 10 to 16, more than 12 percent faced charges for non-violent offenses in school. According to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, disturbing school was the No. 1 offense among juveniles in the county in 2014. During a March school board committee meeting, Interim Director of Alternative Programs Jennifer Coker recommended that the district consider changes to its Code of Conduct
regarding minor offenses that often lead to suspension and expulsion, as reported by the Post and Courier
During the Action Assembly, the four board members pledged to vote in favor of fully funding a five-year plan to implement restorative practices in schools, which use methods of conflict resolution such as peer mediation and support circles to de-escalate potential confrontations in class. Board members also said they will work to revise the district’s Code of Conduct to reflect this new discipline plan and continue to meet with CAJM within the next 90 days.
“I am one of nine members. I will vote to support the changes to the Code of Conduct, but I cannot single-handedly ensure that the Code of Conduct will be revised,” said Miller. “But you do have my support in that effort.”
After a rousing series of answers from the board, it was soon time for Mayor John Tecklenburg to take the stage for what became the most contentious portion of the evening. Citing findings that between 2011 and 2015 Charleston police conducted approximately 94,000 more stops without an arrest or citations than South Carolina’s largest city, Columbia, CAJM called on the mayor for change. More than six times Tecklenburg was asked to create a task force including CAJM members to create a plan to reduce investigatory stops, but he was unwilling to commit to such a plan.
“If we’re enforcing the law, I can’t tell my police officers not to enforce the law,” said Tecklenburg. “I am going to tell them to do it respectfully and without discrimination.”
The mayor also said that he would not support efforts to hire an outside independent police auditor from consulting firm OIR Group to conduct a study of Charleston police practices, arguing that the city must follow a procurement process and take bids from multiple firms for such a project.
North Charleston Councilman Mike Brown, the only north area official to attend the meeting, addressed the same questions as Tecklenburg. He ultimately said he was willing to help implement a plan to reduce investigatory stops in North Charleston and champion a city ordinance to establish a police auditor’s office, but he did not feel that a one-time audit would reveal anything about police practices that the community does not already know. Records kept by the S.C. Department of Public Safety show that the number of public contacts between North Charleston police and civilians that did not lead to a citation or arrest has dropped by approximately two-thirds following the shooting of Walter Scott by an officer last April.
Following the question-and-answer portion of the evening, Rev. Charles Heyward of St. James Presbyterian Church addressed the crowd to talk about the elected officials who were not present and acknowledge that although Mayor Tecklenburg may not have agreed to CAJM’s requests, at least he took part in the meeting.
“That claim on our tactics is diversionary. This is not about tactics,” he said regarding the past comments from Police Chief Driggers. “This is about the process. By our process, CAJM has demonstrated a deep concern for all citizens of our cities.”
Beyond all the talk of bullying tactics and the “yes” and “no” answers, the most important question following the Nehemiah Action Assembly is “What did local elected officials agree to?” But before we get into that, lets back up.