CAJM Hopes To Halt Disparity In Charleston Police Traffic Stops

Thousands gathered at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church for the Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday night. Photo: Tolbert Smalls, Jr.

By Barney Blakeney

The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) held its Nehemiah Action Assembly April 24 at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. This year’s action assembly focused on providing solutions toward ending discriminatory policing practices. The assembly’s coordinators Monday night narrowed that focus onto the Charleston Police Department.

Following a March 23 press conference to announce its challenge to Charleston officials about policing strategies impacting minority communities, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) sought to meet with Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg to address what CAJM considers the disproportionate traffic stops of black motorists. According to CAJM, 50 percent of Charleston police traffic stop are of black motorists and the police department leads the state in the number of traffic stops. Both Charleston and North Charleston have a wide racial disparity in those stops.

Charleston spokesman John O’Toole responded to the statistic Tuesday saying, “At the same time, the City of Charleston points out that contact stops of African American motorists are down 43 percent in the city over the last three years, and were down to 40 percent overall in 2016.”

During the March press conference former Charleston Municipal Judge and CAJM board member attorney Arthur McFarland said North Charleston has taken the steps toward transparency by opening up themselves up to outside professionals specializing in auditing for racial bias, Charleston however has not. Charleston has hired a firm to conduct a performance and efficiency audit of all city departments. CAJM calls on Charleston to conduct an audit specifically for bias in the police department.

At Monday’s assembly the five Blacks on Charleston City Council and one of the five Blacks on North Charleston City Council attended the assembly which led CAJM co-founder Rev. Nelson B. Rivers to speculate, “Not one white elected official of Charleston came last night! And not one white elected official came from North Charleston. A “white out” perhaps.”

Rev. Leonard O. Griffin Pastor of Morris Street Baptist Church in Charleston followed Rivers’ comment with a letter to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. He said, “In spite of being too ill from a Sinus Infection to fulfill my speaking role as scheduled last night, I attended the Nehemiah Action Assembly, even in my weakened state!  I did so because I have been a victim of racial profiling by police in this city and in others over the course of my nearly five decades of living!  I attended the assembly with hopes that you would join this community in the fight against racism, as I have seen you do on other occasions! I am disappointed that your absence, coupled with the absence of ALL of the Caucasian members of the City Council and the absence of Chief Mullen, sends a very stark and strong message to the African American community!

“My perspective on that stark and strong absence is that the factual, abundant, and intelligent data presented on behalf of the African American, Latino, and poor who feel racially profiled and live in fear of those sworn to protect and to serve is not taken seriously by you and by the other absent members of the City Council! The question becomes:  Do the African Americans, Latino and poor in this community have rights that must be respected, and does the peaceful collective voice of the community matter to this administration?”

Though Tecklenburg did not attend did not attend the assembly, he did issue a response to questions CAJM provided prior to the assembly. CAJM asked if Tecklenburg would direct the department to collect all vehicle and pedestrian stop data using best practices, report all the vehicle and pedestrian stop data to the public and CAJM quarterly and if he would propose hiring a firm specializing in auditing police departments for racial bias using best practice criteria.

Tecklenburg responded respectively to the questions saying, the department currently collects the vast majority of the information and makes it available online as part of its Open Data Project, that pedestrian data is available on the website now and can be accessed by the public and CAJM not just quarterly, but 24/7. The department also is working to make full traffic data, much of which is already released under state law, available on the Open Data Project website. And in response to the final question he responded that the City of Charleston has hired an independent firm to conduct a bias-based policing audit of the Charleston Police Department using recognized best practices.

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