In the month since a North Charleston police officer was filmed shooting Walter L. Scott as he tried to run away following a routine traffic stop, activist and community groups have been calling for the creation of a citizen review board that would have the ability to oversee investigations into civilian complaints against police officers.
But after weeks of protests, city officials have not met publicly with the protesters to discuss their idea. Mayor Keith Summey and some City Council members have expressed their reservations about the proposal, particularly about the possibility of creating an unelected board with the power to subpoena police records.
Some council members said last week they didn't know enough about the issue to make an informed decision.
"Nobody has approached me, but they shouldn't approach me. They should be approaching the mayor or his representative," said City Councilman Bobby Jameson. "If the mayor decides that that's what he wants to do — and I think the mayor has already addressed that to them one time before — he'll present it on the agenda at council and we'll discuss it in one of the work meetings and we'll take a vote on it." Asked why he couldn't put the item on the agenda himself, Jameson said, "Since this is such a volatile situation, I don't think any City Council member would do it. We'd probably do it through the mayor as a unity, not as an individual council member."
Councilman Todd Olds said, "I've seen some things circulating, but until I see something that's in the final stage or up for approval, I wouldn't be able to give any opinion on it."
City Councilwoman Dorothy Williams said she hadn't received any calls asking for civilian oversight. "I haven't heard any protesters or nothing," Williams said. "Nobody has called me. Nobody has been discussing this." Asked if she would support the creation of a new civilian board to oversee the police, Williams said, "I don't agree with it," adding that existing groups including the Community and Police Panel already allow residents to give input.
Councilman Ed Astle echoed Williams, saying, "We already have a citizens' advisory panel with the police department."
Councilman Bob King, chairman of the Public Safety Committee, did not reply to a request for comment, nor did representatives for Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers.
The Community and Police Panel, composed of volunteer community members who share concerns with the police department at monthly meetings, was formed in 2006, when violent crime rates were particularly high in North Charleston. But Elder James Johnson, an outspoken police critic who initially joined the panel, says he left it in 2009 because "they didn't have the power to change the police department."
"The problem was, the police were talking to the people on the porch who didn't commit the crimes," Johnson says. "They didn't talk to the people who North Charleston policemen were beating on the sides of their heads or calling them the N-word, talking down to them. That segment was never addressed, so the culture didn't change."
The recent negotiations between activists and the city started on a contentious note. The day after the video of the Walter Scott shooting was released, members of the protest group Black Lives Matter-Charleston demanded a Citizens Review Board during a rally in front of City Hall. When Mayor Summey and Chief Driggers held a press conference inside City Council chambers later that day to field questions from the national media, various protesters interrupted several times and took up a chant as Summey left the room: "The mayor's gotta go!"
Shortly afterward, Black Lives Matter-Charleston began calling for the mayor and City Council to hold a special meeting and publicly discuss the idea of civilian oversight for the police department. Summey made a counter-offer that he would meet with the activists privately, but the protesters turned him down. To this day, city officials have not held a public meeting on the topic of creating a Citizens Review Board.
On the one-month anniversary of Scott's death, the newly formed Charleston Civil Coalition for Reform held a rally in front of North Charleston City Hall and read off a list of reforms, including a demand for an end to racial profiling, equal access to services, improved government transparency, and — echoing the Black Lives Matter request — "independent, community-based oversight and accountability over the North Charleston Police Department." Groups in the coalition included the Chicora-Cherokee Neighborhood Council, Dorchester Waylyn Association, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, The Coalition, National Action Network, Nation of Islam, International Longshoreman's Association Local 1422, Oak Forest Neighborhood Association, and the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, an organization representing several North Charleston neighborhoods.
Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with Black Lives Matter-Charleston, says the additional groups lend "political and social capital to the cause." He says his group would continue to protest, and his group has followed up by calling for an economic boycott of North Charleston's Tanger outlet mall on this past Mother's Day weekend.
"[Summey] doesn't respect the rules of engagement, and the city government doesn't respect the outcry we have brought to them for over a month," d'Baha said. "Because of that reason, it's now time for us to demonstrate our unity and to demonstrate our discontent."
That discontent was on dramatic display last Wednesday, when activists with the group #BlackBrunchCHS and Southerners On New Ground blocked the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge between Charleston and Mt. Pleasant during afternoon rush hour. In flyers that the protesters handed to onlookers, they claimed that "the City of North Charleston has refused to work with [the] community to ensure accountability," adding, "We unite with [the] community's demand for a civilian review board."
While specifics have been scarce, activists and community leaders have asked generally that private citizens be allowed to oversee the police department's internal investigations of civilian complaints.
In the wake of the Walter Scott shooting, the North Charleston Police Department records revealed that Michael T. Slager, the officer charged with murder in Scott's death, had previously been the subject of a civilian complaint. In a September 2013 case, a man filed a complaint stating that Slager had used a Taser on him, despite the fact that he was not a suspect of the crime Slager was investigating. Witnesses said the man clearly identified himself as not being the person Slager was looking for, and the man said that he "was tased for no reason and that [Slager] slammed him and dragged him," according to a complaint report.
The man filed his complaint with the police department on Sept. 16, 2013, and by Oct. 4, Slager had been exonerated. A report on the internal investigation does not indicate why Slager was exonerated.
Civilian oversight of police departments is not a new idea. A 2013 study published by the Center for Public Policy at California State University, Fullerton found that about 100 citizen oversight committees — the generic term for what North Charleston activists have called a citizens review board — had been formed around the United States.
Citizen oversight committees have taken a number of forms — some include only police officers; some are composed entirely of civilians. Some police departments with larger budgets have hired an internal auditor to investigate citizen complaints. The report noted that a recent trend was to create hybrid committees with members from both inside and outside the law enforcement agency.
"Many officers believe that citizen oversight and outside investigations are 'unfair and biased against them' because their presence implies an inability of police agencies to monitor and investigate themselves," the report states. "Recent changes in police oversight, however, have shifted away from the 'us v. them' mentality."
One early example of a citizen oversight committee was formed by the New York Police Department in 1953. It came about after years of lobbying by a local coalition named the Permanent Coordination Committee on Police and Minority Groups, who called on the city to monitor police conduct, particularly "in their relations with Puerto Ricans and Negros," according to the city government's website. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, as it was called, was originally composed of three deputy police commissioners who investigated civilian complaints against officers.
In 1987, New York City Council restructured the Civilian Complaint Review Board to include both civilians and officers. In 1993, after much public debate following a CCRB review of police violence against curfew protesters in Tompkins Square Park in 1988, City Council re-made the CCRB in its current, all-civilian form. City Council also granted the board subpoena powers, partly so that it could obtain film footage from local media of police-involved incidents.
The board currently has five members appointed by the mayor, five appointed by City Council, and three appointed by the police commissioner. In 2012, a memorandum of understanding with the NYPD granted CCRB attorneys, rather than police department attorneys, the authority to prosecute substantiated misconduct cases against police officers. The CCRB also can recommend department policy changes to the police commissioner. It currently has 167 full-time employees and an annual budget of more than $12 million.
So, how well does it work? The CCRB reported that it had fully investigated 3,409 investigations in the first six months of 2014, of which 294 were substantiated. The most common substantiated complaint was abuse of authority.
In North Charleston, protesters have not stated any specifics about how the Citizens Review Board members would be appointed, who would fund it (if it needed funding at all), whether it would have subpoena power, or whether it would have the authority to prosecute or simply to recommend disciplinary action to the police chief. They have only tried to start a conversation, but so far that conversation has been one-sided.
Of the five North Charleston City Council members who responded to City Paper interview requests, only one mentioned that he had been researching how citizen oversight committees function in other cities. Councilman Michael Brown, whose district includes the southern portion of the city commonly known as the Neck, says he has told people who asked him about the idea of a citizen oversight committee that "it needed to be considered."
Asked whether he would agree to a public meeting with activists on the topic, Brown said, "Our starting offer would be a conversation ... If you and I disagree, I think you and I have to talk first before I bring in a whole lot of other people."
He added, "How it's set up, what powers they have, who's part of the board — all those need to be considered. I think some [citizen oversight committees] say they were effective, and quite a few weren't that effective. But it definitely needs a dialogue to be moved forward."