North Charleston has struggled since its inception with mistrust and tension between citizens and police as it tries to find a delicate balance between public safety and civil rights in a community beset with violent crime.
The state’s third-largest city has pockets of deep, entrenched poverty and neighborhoods where gunfire has been a familiar visitor in the night. But attempts to quell the crime, which for three years landed North Charleston among the nation’s most dangerous cities, brought about cries of racial profiling and unfair treatment of minorities–particularly of young, black men.
Years-long efforts to bridge that divide and smooth relations with the community took a deep hit this week with the arrest of Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, accused of gunning down an apparently unarmed, fleeing black man after a traffic stop. Slager, who is white, is charged with murder in 50-year-old Walter L. Scott’s death.
A protest outside City Hall remained peaceful Wednesday morning, but demonstrators drowned out Mayor Keith Summey during an afternoon news conference with chants demanding justice and questioning the city’s struggle to hire minority police officers. The department is about 18 percent black in a city that is 45 percent black.
While the FBI has opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, Summey vowed to discuss with residents whether the city’s policing tactics and policies should be changed. He also announced that the city Wednesday bought 150 body-worn cameras in light of Scott’s death that will complement the 101 cameras it had already ordered through a state grant. He didn’t say when the city would get the shipment of 251 cameras that will outfit every uniformed patrol officer.
State Rep. David Mack, a North Charleston Democrat who is black, was a speaker a few years ago in classes on cultural sensitivity that were mandated for all new officers. It was a program designed to help them better understand policing from the perspective of those they serve. Mack thought the classes made a difference, but a video of Scott’s shooting that emerged Tuesday shows that the Police Department still has its issues, he said.
“It’s an ongoing battle,” he said. “I think we have made progress, but this incident . . . wounded the community tremendously.”
But if history is any guide, the road to restoring trust could be an arduous path. That problem was clear during the news conference when residents interrupted Summey several times with chants.
“How are you the mayor?” one man yelled. “Nobody respects you.”
The conference was punctuated with chants of “the mayor gotta go” and “no justice, no peace.” Some people in the crowd were familiar with the sentiment.
Old-timers in the Police Department used to share stories of bare-knuckled brawls as outnumbered officers waded into packed and unruly roadhouses to restore order in the days after the city formed in 1975. Outmanned and hemmed in, they found it safer to subdue and ask questions later. It was a question of survival, they said.
The department has come a long way since those days and is now a nationally accredited institution, priding itself on professional rules and policies that have withstood expert scrutiny. But questions have lingered through the years about the methods employed by the rank-and-file to keep the peace–particularly in regard to using deadly force against black residents.
“We want the world to understand that this is not an isolated incident,” protester Muhiyidin d’Baha said at the demonstration Wednesday morning in front of City Hall. “This has been a reality that has been in the North Charleston Police Department for many, many years.”
In October 2000, for example, protesters took to the streets after the police shooting death of Edward Snowden in a Dorchester Road video store. Snowden, a black man who was being attacked by four white men, was shot by police after they arrived and found him holding a gun. Police were cleared of wrongdoing, though the city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Snowden’s family for about $70,000.
Racial tensions rose again after the November 2003 fatal shooting of Asberry Wylder, a black shoplifting suspect with a history of mental illness. Police shot Wylder after he plunged a knife into an officer’s protective vest during a confrontation outside a Rivers Avenue supermarket. Some witnesses said Wylder was beaten and shot a second time after he was handcuffed on the ground. The state’s probe found nothing to indicate that the police acted improperly, but that conclusion won little acceptance in the black community.
Tensions continued to simmer as the pressure to drive down crime intensified when the city racked up 55 killings between the start of 2006 and the end of 2007. That led to Washington-based CQ Press ranking North Charleston among the Top 10 most-dangerous cities in the nation.
Desperate to shake the distinction, city officials enacted a policy of aggressive patrolling: incessant stops of motorists for minor violations, seemingly random interviews with residents and a virtual police occupation of neighborhoods in the days just after violence occurred.
The idea was to create constant contact with residents of the most troubled areas in the city, tamping down the opportunities for crime while establishing sources to help investigators solve cases. The strategy seemed to work. By 2010, the number of people slain had fallen to five, and the city tumbled off the upper reaches of the infamous list of perilous places to live.
Critics, however, insisted that those gains had come with a steep cost to civil liberties, particularly for black residents who constituted the majority of those subjected to stops and field questioning. Between 2008 and early 2012, 120 complaints were lodged against the Police Department, with the majority of the complaints coming from blacks.
About 200 protesters amassed Wednesday morning in front of City Hall, the first organized rally since the video came to light. Members of Black Lives Matter Charleston, a grassroots group that formed after police-involved deaths in Missouri and New York, had figured that the day might come when the national conversation on the use of deadly force hit home.
Signs thrust into the air were emblazoned with messages of “back turned, don’t shoot” and “stop racist police terror.”
The rally ended with protesters blocking nearby Mall Drive for 15 minutes. Some angry motorists yelled at them from their cars. But one got out to hug and link arms with the demonstrators.
In protests Wednesday, residents cried out for the police chief to answer their questions about the video, and they balked when the city’s mayor asked for quiet so he could answer journalists’ questions. “Our community member died,” they chanted, “not the media’s.”