Trust holds a community together, but for many in North Charleston it is something that's been lacking.
In a city of more than 100,000, 340 officers with the North Charleston Police Department are sworn to protect and serve, but what happens when belief in the system breaks down? Over the past 18 months, since the events in Ferguson, Mo. and the death of Michael Brown, police departments across the country have been forced to account for their practices as the use of force by officers came into question. For North Charleston, it was the death of Walter Scott, shot five times while fleeing from former officer Michael Slager, that brought this issue into the light. But as stories of predatory ticketing and police brutality continue to surface, how can local law enforcement bridge the divide between their officers and citizens before the community splits apart completely?
Dozens of North Charleston residents gathered at the Alfred Williams Community Life Center on Durant Avenue last Thursday evening to share stories of their past experiences with law enforcement. While no concrete evidence was provided to support the claims of those who spoke up, the meeting served as an opportunity for citizens to voice their concerns in a safe, public forum.
Last year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the North Charleston branch of the organization sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to request a federal investigation of the North Charleston Police Department, alleging a pattern of unconstitutional policing in the city. Citing statistics from the S.C. Department of Public Safety, the request states that approximately 122,800 drivers were stopped by North Charleston police officers and released without an arrest or citation over a recent four-year period. Of this total, 65 percent were African-American.
The letter then goes on to list almost a dozen past cases involving allegations of excessive use of force by the department. In 2013, one former officer pled guilty to misconduct in office after wrongfully detaining a man and driving him out to a remote location. The officer then allegedly assaulted the man, stating, "This is what happens when you disrespect police." The victim was then abandoned after being told to find his way back home. Other cases involve allegations of racial slurs, brutality, and suspects being denied medical treatment for broken bones. These are the stories the Legal Defense Fund has, but they're not done listening.
Saying they've received no response from the Department of Justice, the Legal Defense Fund has decided to conduct their own investigation of police practices in North Charleston. And last week's town hall was an effort to gather more evidence from citizens — evidence that they hope will be enough to launch a federal case. The North Charleston Police Department did not return calls about the meeting.
"While North Charleston residents were able to breathe a sigh of relief when state, and possibly federal, criminal charges were brought against former officer Slager, they have made it clear to us that Walter Scott's traffic stop and police use of excessive force is emblematic of a long-standing policing problem in this city," said Monique Dixon, deputy director of Policy and Senior Counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. "As we wait for the Department of Justice to respond to our request for a pattern or practice investigation of the NCPD, we must gather with the community to truly understand the gravity and scope of the policing problem in North Charleston."
Karla is a student at R.B. Stall High School in North Charleston. She chose not to share her last name with those at last week's meeting, but she did share her story. While on her way to class one morning, Karla was stopped for being late — a familiar situation and one that we've all probably experienced. But then she says things took a turn.
"I was sent to the place that you go when you're late to class, and the officers at the school were yelling at me, and I didn't really like it. I was actually polite," she says to the crowd at the Alfred Williams Community Life Center. "Afterwards, the [school resource officers] came along and they started pushing me around and yelling at me. I just got mad at them too, and I started yelling back. ... One of the officers threw me on the ground, and another officer insisted on handcuffing me, and they arrested me."
For many of today's students, their first real experiences with law enforcement officers are in the classroom. Approximately 43 percent of all public schools now have one or more security guards, security personnel, school resource officers, or sworn law enforcement officers on school grounds at least once a week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. More than half of this total are school resource officers or sworn law enforcement. While these officers are tasked with the important duty of keeping students and teachers safe, many have questioned the role that police play in school discipline.
After Karla's alleged altercation with school resource officers, she says she was taken to the office and charged with disturbing schools — an offense that has come under increased scrutiny due to its subjective nature. According to South Carolina state code, it is unlawful for "any person wilfully or unnecessarily to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college ... to loiter about such school or college premises or to act in an obnoxious manner thereon." Those found in violation of this law can be charged with a misdemeanor and if convicted, face a fine of up to $1,000 or a maximum of 90 days in county jail. In the case of minors, the offenses are tried in family court.
According to the state Department of Juvenile Justice, disturbing school was the No. 1 offense among juveniles in Charleston County in 2014 with 265 referrals recorded that year. Of the total number of juvenile referrals in Charleston County, 75 percent were cases against African-Americans. Charges of disturbing school can also contribute to suspension and expulsion rates, which have also been found to disproportionately affect students of color. A report from the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education found that although African-American students make up approximately 45 percent of the total enrollment in Charleston County schools, these students accounted for more than 76 percent of suspensions.
Earlier this month, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman announced the recommendations of the Safe Schools Taskforce, which examined current school policies and training criteria for educators and law enforcement. In their final report, the group suggested offering additional training sites for school resource officers and expanding training to include classroom management, positive intervention, cultural diversity, de-escalation, and crisis prevention.
Back at the town hall discussion in North Charleston, J. Denise Cromwell says her nephew was brought back to school in handcuffs following an altercation that led to his suspension. He was in the fifth grade at the time. For her, negative encounters with police can have lasting effects on children that extend well beyond their school years.
"He should have not ever been brought back to the school in cuffs. I mean, really? How does that happen in America? How does that happen in Charleston to our kids?" she says. "Now they have set my nephew up on the school-to-prison pipeline, and he has been struggling ever since."
Toward the end of the public forum, Cromwell returned to the mic to speak out about a recent effort by Charleston police to build trust and understanding in the community — one that she hopes the city of North Charleston will adopt.
Supported by donations to the Charleston Police Fund, the Charleston Police Department's Illumination Project was announced last September. The yearlong project began with the creation of a steering committee comprised of community and religious leaders and everyday citizens. This group will direct the main objectives of the project, but efforts to engage the community have already begun.
The first of several community listening sessions was held in downtown Charleston on March 8. Mark Ruppel, executive director of the Charleston Police Fund, says the meetings are times for the public to come out, share their thoughts, their beliefs, and what the police department could be doing differently. Those attending the session were divided into groups of eight and paired with a trained facilitator to keep the conversation going. At the conclusion of the final meeting, the thoughts shared by citizens and law enforcement officers will be collected and analyzed by the Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Center for Livable Communities at the College of Charleston. Organizers hope this research can be used to foster better relationships between the community and the police department.
"What we're finding out is a lot of times, not always, but when someone complains about an action that the police department has taken, it's more of an educational issue. We need to explain to the community the policies and why that officer or the department is doing what they're doing," says Ruppel. "And a lot of times, once we explain exactly why that procedure or that action was taken, people are like, 'Oh, that makes sense.' ... We're hoping that at the end of this project we have something that's rooted in science that we can take to other communities that they can use as a road map."
Earlier this month, the Police Executive Research Forum released a report detailing the findings of a conference that brought together 150 community leaders and police chiefs from all over the country to discuss one thing — building trust. Acknowledging the need for such a discussion in what they described as the "post-Ferguson world," the organization saw it necessary to listen to what citizens believe is broken with current police practices in their community and what departments are doing to fix it.
For Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, this means agencies showing a willingness to look inward and acknowledge that there is strife between departments and citizens. To this end, the chief says it is important for all police departments to realize that not everyone belongs in the policing profession, and those in charge must use all available resources to remove those individuals not cut out for the job.
"The professors who are teaching us about cultural competence say we are part of a system that's racist and oppressive, and it bothered me when I first heard them say that. But we have to think about that," Putney said in the report. "We are doing a yearlong 'self-assessment' project for all of our lieutenants. I wouldn't call it a training. It's more of an education. I can teach you how to train your head and hands to do the mechanics of the job, but I can't train your heart."
PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler, who aided in the selection process when Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen was hired, said he asked each police chief to not bring their biggest fan or their biggest critic, but someone who would represent the voice of their community and its history.
"Sometimes when you go into a city, you kind of recognize that there are a lot of ghosts, ghosts that have affected relationships," says Wexler. "It might be a particular incident that happened. It may be the way police treat people or engage with people. There is a lot of baggage that people bring to their history."
On the other side of things, Ruppel says it's also important to change the public's perception of officers — moving away from the image of police as enforcers and toward the role of officers as fellow citizens and protectors in the community. During the first communication session in Charleston, many officers made it a point to let others get to know the person behind the badge before moving forward in a healthy way.
"A lot of the public was like, 'Wow, I look at you as a man with a gun, or I look at you as someone who can give me a ticket or someone who can arrest me. Now that I know you have two kids and like to run, I get to know you're a real person just like me,'" Ruppel says.
Upcoming community listening sessions are scheduled for March 29 at the Hellenic Center on Race Street, with more to follow throughout March and April. Those interested in attending or donating to the Charleston Police Fund can visit charlestonpolicefund.org. With these meetings and the town hall discussion in North Charleston, it becomes clear that gathering public input is a necessary step in understanding the current problems that exist in the local community. These stories, though difficult for many to hear, serve to shine a light on what has gone wrong with the current system and what can be done to rebuild trust among all those involved.
As the first African-American superintendent-in-chief for the Boston Police Department, William Gross is willing to acknowledge the negative history of his department, and he knows that the only path to a healthy police force is listening to what the public has to say — good or bad.
"You can never dismiss anyone's negative experiences with the police, what they have gone through, or what their loved ones have gone through, no matter where they hail from or what neighborhood they are from," he said during the Police Executive Research Forum national conference. "With that being said, you can use those moments in history to showcase how you have made progress, to show what you are doing now that is positive, not only for the police department but for the city as a whole."