Just before Jon Zumalt took over as the North Charleston police chief in 2001, the department faced one of the ugliest moments in its history.
In October 2000, two officers were dispatched to a video store parking lot, where a man named Edward Snowden was allegedly being attacked. But when they arrived there, according to the officers, Snowden was pointing a gun at people in the store. The officers shot Snowden four times, killing him.
Snowden's family sued the City of North Charleston, claiming that the police dispatcher failed to tell the officers that Snowden, who was black, was being attacked by white assailants. The city settled the wrongful death suit in 2003, paying the family nearly $70,000.
Zumalt, who took the North Charleston position after 22 years on the police force in Wichita, Kan., knew exactly what he was getting into when he came to town. The issues at the center of the Snowden case — violent crime and racial profiling — would come to define his stint as chief.
Last week, Zumalt announced that he would be retiring Jan. 31, 2013, giving Mayor Keith Summey time to select his replacement. He plans to seek a chief position in another city. "There just comes a point where you've accomplished the things you intended to accomplish," Zumalt says.
Those accomplishments are largely gauged in light of what happened in 2007, when CQ Press placed the city at No. 7 on its list of the most dangerous cities in the United States. There had been 28 homicides in 2006, a year when one in 59 North Charlestonians had been a victim of a violent crime. According to the controversial report, which factored in a variety of FBI statistics, North Charleston was more dangerous than Compton, Calif. (one violent crime per 58 people); Atlanta (one violent crime per 64 people); and Cleveland, Ohio (one violent crime per 65 people).
Zumalt started several initiatives to clean up the streets in 2007, and looking at the data, they seem to have worked. By 2010, North Charleston had dropped to No. 63 in those infamous ranks. In 2011, according to FBI statistics, violent crimes in North Charleston were down to one for every 151 people.
But not everyone is pleased with the way he got those results. Dot Scott, a North Charleston resident and president of the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says the department has been guilty of racial profiling, needlessly pulling over drivers in black neighborhoods and questioning them. "I think the city actually wreaked havoc on law-abiding citizens in an effort to improve those numbers," Scott says.
In 2007, after the city got its black eye with the No. 7 ranking, Zumalt enlisted the help of Gary McCarthy, who helped set up the revolutionary CompStat law enforcement protocol at the New York City Police Department. With CompStat in place, leaders at the North Charleston Police Department now meet every other week to analyze crime patterns and beef up patrols in problematic areas. He also added patrols in neighborhoods that had a history of violence. These neighborhoods also tended to have large African-American populations, he says. Other programs he put in place included a retaliation-prevention program, which sent pastors and victim advocates to hospitals to keep friends and family members from avenging victims of violence.
Zumalt says he always tells officers they need to "sell the stop" whenever they pull over a vehicle or talk to a pedestrian, explaining why they are in the neighborhood and what prompted the stop. "What I've learned over my career is that people care less about the ticket, and they care more about the interaction and the way they were treated," Zumalt says.
But Scott isn't buying it. "It got to a point where they lied about the reason they stopped people," Scott says. One septuagenarian woman in her neighborhood, Pepperhill, started getting pulled over on a regular basis. "All of a sudden, she started getting stopped because they would say 'You did a rolling stop' or 'Your light didn't work,' " Scott says.
Not everyone is as outraged as Scott. In a survey conducted in August by an opinion research firm out of Washington, D.C., 81 percent of the North Charleston residents polled said they were satisfied with the police department. However, only 64 percent said they were satisfied with the police's job of getting drugs off the streets, and a mere 54 percent said they felt safe visiting areas of North Charleston outside their own neighborhood.
Zumalt knows there's still work to be done by the next chief. The police force is currently three-quarters white, and he'd like to see it about 50 percent black. But on the whole, he talks about his time in North Charleston as a success.
As a case study, he presents Charleston Farms, a neighborhood near North Rhett Avenue and Remount Road that he says was "an open-air drug market" before police intervened in 2010. NCPD installed a neighborhood resource officer to work full-time with residents there, added more patrols during the peak crime hours of 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then tried something innovative: After arresting more than 30 street-level crack dealers, they picked out eight who had no previous criminal record and sought to rehabilitate them outside of the prison system with the help of GED classes, local churches, and the Father to Father Project, a program that teaches responsibility. Four of the eight dealers now have jobs, and NBC's Dateline recently filmed a segment about the initiative.
Bill Ellis, a 45-year resident of Charleston Farms and president of the neighborhood association, says the police efforts have worked, making the neighborhood safer than it has been in 15 years and even encouraging the neighbors to start a community garden.
"We're not innocent, now. I'm not going to tell you we're innocent," Ellis says. "But it's a whole lot better, and you have a chance to improve. You don't see the drug dealers on the corners like you used to."