As complaints about police tactics in North Charleston accumulated over the years, calls mounted for an independent inquiry into whether the fight against rising violence had come at a cost to residents’ civil rights.
For a while, the pleas went unanswered and the critics grew frustrated. After an officer’s shooting of Walter Scott was caught on video, though, a U.S. Department of Justice review of the police force gave them hope.
But the federal government last week ended the program and returned the full burden of accountability to local officials who had long resisted criticism, dealing the North Charleston Police Department a setback in its effort to placate detractors. The reform initiative was transformed into a new crime-fighting endeavor — an abrupt shift that has created new fears and dampened hopes of lasting change.
“So what’s the message? The police are going back to the way they’ve been doing it for years?” said Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP chapter. “As a citizen in North Charleston, I’ve got serious concerns about that.”
With uncertainty swirling around whether the city can accomplish reform without outside help, some leaders are placing new faith in an advisory commission they formed amid the furor over Walter Scott’s death. But advocates, and some of the panel’s own members, doubt the ability and power of a citizen board to make recommendations and monitor whether the suggestions are followed — a key component of federal authorities’ failed plan.
In his only statement since the program’s demise, Mayor Keith Summey said he was “pleased” with the changes that allow further collaboration between the police and their federal counterparts, even though the new effort will zero in on crime. He and a spokesman have refused to answer questions about what exactly that entails.
City Councilman Ron Brinson said the mayor, like him, is “pretty disappointed,” especially because Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers had asked for the federal scrutiny in the first place. Brinson said he and Summey agreed that the advisory commission should help the city take its next step.
“It’s regrettable,” Brinson said of the development. “This is a setback, but it wasn’t anything we caused.”
Brinson had joined Summey and Driggers last year when they publicly revealed the effort. Driggers did not respond to a request for comment this week.
“We started out with great promise and expectation,” Brinson said. “We elected a new president, and here we are.”
Government ‘turned its back’
Saying that law enforcement accountability should fall under local control, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year ordered a review to make sure the Collaborative Reform Initiative at the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, didn’t run afoul of that tenet and President Donald Trump’s law-and-order principles. It came as little surprise to some when he opted Friday to essentially disband the unit as it was designed under Barack Obama’s administration.
The change affects North Charleston and other cities that sought Justice Department help in mending ties after controversies embroiled their communities. Federal officials since May 2016 had been conducting interviews and examining policies in North Charleston.
The analysis came after a patrolman, Michael Slager, stopped Walter Scott’s car in April 2015 for a broken brake light. During a later struggle, Slager said Scott took his Taser. But Scott had started running away when Slager opened fire, hitting Scott five times from behind.
Slager was arrested after the video footage emerged. He pleaded guilty this year to a federal civil rights violation and awaits sentencing.
The COPS office was due to release its findings this summer and to issue later reports on the Police Department’s progress in enacting its recommendations. No such report is now scheduled, a COPS spokeswoman said.
Members of the North Charleston Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations are among those who intend to still get their hands on any draft documents produced during the review. Similar reports in other cities that underwent a COPS analysis contained as many as 50 findings that local leaders could use to make improvements.
“As citizen advisers, our ability to generate serious recommendations is diminished, I think, without access to the professional judgments of the COPS team,” the panel’s vice chairman, Daniel O’Neal, said. “But even if we come up with new recommendations, it remains to be seen how they will be received by the city.”
O’Neal said the Police Department has not formally responded to the commission’s suggestions to outfit supervisors with body-worn cameras, and it hasn’t addressed concerns about a study indicating that black people’s complaints against police are less likely to be substantiated than those from whites.
Columbia lawyer Bill Nettles, South Carolina’s top federal prosecutor when the COPS probe began and now a paid adviser to the commission, said it was reasonable for the board to count on the federal government’s guidance.
“That community members asked their government for help and their government turned its back on the community should remind everyone that elections have consequences,” he said. “It’s particularly relevant that law enforcement joined the community in asking for this report.”
The panel already has met with advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union. Shaundra Young Scott, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said the Justice Department’s decision puts reformers “in for a long haul” while trying to devise an alternative to hold the police accountable after excessive-force allegations.
She said commission members were receptive to outside input.
“They shared our concerns and are willing to work with us,” Young Scott said. “But they wanted to use this report to guide them. They are still trying to figure out how to approach things.”
Dot Scott, the NAACP official who also sits on the commission, said she had been pleased with the level of detail being collected by the COPS examiners. She was among those who initially expressed skepticism about the program.
Now, she’s hearing the same doubt from residents about whether the panel can fill the void.
“It’s a game-changer,” she said. “Instead of getting a better idea of what the problem is, we won’t know what the problem is. So we allow that problem to stay in place.”
At every anniversary of Walter Scott’s death, questions will be asked about what the city’s police force has done to improve, said Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston NAACP. One step it could point toward — the advisory commission — has no teeth and cannot be relied upon to make a profound difference, Bryant argued.
“We’re going to continue to pursue civil rights,” he said. “We just need to look in another direction.”
But Bryant acknowledged that he was unsure where the best answer lies.