Friday, March 9, 2018

Charleston's new police chief, Luther Reynolds, says there is a "perception that police have created harm"

NAACP's Dot Scott: "I had nothing negative about him that concerned me to any degree."

Posted by Adam Manno on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 4:45 PM

click to enlarge Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Luther Reynolds at a press conference on March 9, 2018. Reynolds will take over as Charleston's chief of police on April 16. - ADAM MANNO
  • Adam Manno
  • Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Luther Reynolds at a press conference on March 9, 2018. Reynolds will take over as Charleston's chief of police on April 16.

Charleston will soon get a permanent police chief to oversee the process of rebuilding public trust after years of struggle between activists and city leaders on an independent racial bias audit of the Charleston Police Department.

In a press conference Friday afternoon, Mayor John Tecklenburg announced that Luther Reynolds will be taking over as head of the department on April 16.

Reynolds currently serves as the assistant police chief for the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland, a racially diverse, suburban county serving a little over one million people. He has held the position of assistant chief, under different titles, since 2013, and has worked for the county's police department since 1988.

He has a bachelor's degree in criminology from Florida State University and a master's degree in business from Johns Hopkins University.

Reynolds will replace interim police chief Jerome Taylor, who was appointed after chief Greg Mullen's retirement in June 2017. Taylor was also considered for the permanent position.

"Luther has a servant’s heart," Mayor Tecklenburg said before introducing Reynolds to the Council chamber. "I knew that from the first day I met him and heard his responses. He’s a guardian and will lead the Charleston Police Department in that tradition of guardianship."

The Charleston Police Department was recently the focus of a back-and-forth between city leaders and activists, including members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), who sought an independent racial bias audit of the city's law enforcement agency. CAJM is a group of 28 member congregations in the Charleston region who typically devote their resources to a single issue per year. In 2016 and 2017, that issue was racial bias in policing.

In November, Mayor Tecklenburg announced that he had reached an agreement with Novak Consulting, a firm hired for a city-wide efficiency audit in February 2017, to carve out a review of the police department from the firm's responsibilities. City Council then unanimously voted to draft a new request for proposal for a firm experienced in racial bias audits.

CAJM co-president Jeremy Rutledge says that after two years of work, members of the group are finally scheduled for meetings with city leaders like Council member Keith Waring, who Rutledge says is devoted to drafting the proposal and seeing the audit through.

"A lot of the City Council members have been very supportive," Rutledge said. "It’s very striking how every single Council member of color has had experiences being harassed and has shared their story, so this is not an abstraction at all."

Rutledge invites Reynolds to share in that process.

"We just welcome the new chief to join us in that work," Rutledge said. "It can help improve trust in the police, and everyone can benefit."

At Friday's press conference, Reynolds praised the city's Illumination Project, a series of listening sessions between officers and citizens that started in March 2016. He said that his biggest challenge will be building a relationship with the public and the department's employees, along with getting to know City Council ahead of budget season.

"A lot of communities that need us the most, often trust us the least, so we need to build that trust," Reynolds said, adding that he will work with the city on completing a successful audit of the department once a firm is chosen.

"I don't see that as a problem, I think that's an opportunity," he said. "I think a lot of cities around the country are doing an audit similar to that. As I understand, there was a concern that there wasn't enough engagement, that there wasn't enough diversity.

"But I think more important than the data and the research .... is that we come out at the end with a stronger relationship. That we're not fractured," he said.

Reynolds comes to Charleston from Montgomery County, an area with a population of almost 1.1 million people and a prominent Hispanic community. Reynolds says that his experience building trust with communities that are sometimes skeptical of law enforcement will help him navigate Charleston's complicated recent past.

"The Latino community in Maryland, they’re afraid," Reynolds said in an interview with CP after Mayor Tecklenburg's announcement. "They’re afraid of getting deported, of ICE, of all kinds of things. As a police officer, we have to work that much harder to protect them and to make sure they can trust the police, call us when they need us, and report crimes. We have to be in those communities that need us here the most, also. How do we build those relationships? It takes time to do that."

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, says she is satisfied with the outcome of the city's search, which was facilitated by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Scott and other members of the community, including City Council member James Lewis, Jr., sat with each candidate for an hour during the selection process.

"I had nothing negative about him that concerned me to any degree," Scott said. "I thought all of them pretty much could do the job, but some probably could do it better."

Scott's was primarily concerned about one police chief candidate: Kenton Buckner, the Little Rock police chief who withdrew his name from consideration for the Charleston job in a statement released on March 5.

"I thought that his apparent need to feel like, 'I'm not going to talk about my relationship with the African-American community,' that concerned me greatly," she said.

Buckner came under scrutiny after news reports suggesting a fractured relationship with black officers in his hometown surfaced during the selection process.

"I think that the new chief can pick up where Mullen left off and go to the next level," Scott said. "It took us a while to feel like we could really have an open door and an open ear to the police department."

Reynolds' selection changes the face of Charleston area law enforcement following years of tension that came to a head after the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston in April 2015.

Reggie Burgess, who is black, was sworn in as chief of the North Charleston Police Department on Jan. 11, a little over a month after former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting Scott. Reynolds, however, is replacing another black police chief, interim chief Taylor.

"I think that’s a legitimate concern that a lot of people have — communities of color — that want to make sure they’re well represented and make sure that police are serving them adequately, with transparency, fairly, and equitably," Reynolds said. "There’s a perception that the police have created harm in the past. I think the color of my skin is less than what will hopefully come out through my leadership style."

Charleston Police Department spokesperson Charles Frances referred all questions about Reynolds' selection to the city.

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