By Barney Blakeney
In a surprising move last week North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey named veteran police Asst. Chief Reggie Burgess the department’s new chief. Former Chief Eddie Driggers was named liaison to the mayor between the police and fire departments. While Burgess’ promotion is welcomed, some questions remain unanswered.
Burgess is infinitely qualified to lead the department. A life-long resident of North Charleston, Burgess graduated Bonds Wilson High School, attended Morgan State University and later received dual Bachelor Degrees from Claflin University, majoring in Criminal Justice and Sociology. He joined the North Charleston Police Department, starting at the entry level of patrolman in 1989. Over his 29 years Burgess climbed through the ranks and was named Assistant Chief in 2013.
Being a police officer has been Burgess’ dream. “When I was a teenager, growing up in various neighborhoods in North Charleston, there was a television show called “SWAT,” said Reggie Burgess. “Although it was Hollywood fiction, the show created a spark for me to explore serving my community through police work, to protect all who felt victimized. I knew becoming a police officer would allow me to have a direct impact on improving my city and the neighborhoods where I grew up.” He continued, “Becoming the police chief of the City of North Charleston is truly a blessing. Mayor Summey has entrusted me to positively motivate, influence, lead and guide the police department personnel, and to improve the quality of life for the citizens of North Charleston.”
Burgess’ promotion has been received with widespread support and acceptance. But the devil lies in the details. North Charleston Police Department has been beset with criticism for racially discriminatory practices for decades. It’s criticism that’s mostly gone unaddressed.
In a July 14 press release the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational fund, Inc. Senior Communications Associate David Jacobs reported African Americans filed nearly twice as many complaints as their White counterparts, but that complaints filed by African Americans were sustained only 31 percent of the time as opposed to complaints filed by Whites, which were sustained 50 percent of the time. This racial disparity was particularly pronounced in use-of-force complaints, where the NCPD sustained complaints filed by White residents at seven times the rate at which they sustained complaints filed by African Americans, the LDF reported.
The April 2015 police shooting death of unarmed Walter Scott, a Black man, after a routine traffic stop conducted by officer Michael Slager, a white patrolman who subsequently attempted to cover up the misdeed, offered evidence to charges a culture of abuse and discrimination exists within the department.
In July Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF said, “Residents of North Charleston have urged city officials to change policing practices for years. Our report analyzing citizen complaints against the NCPD confirms the views of residents of color that they are disproportionately mistreated by police, yet their complaints are not adequately documented or addressed.”
As the police department endured the criticism growing to become one of the state’s largest police forces, its reputation as abusive remains unwavering. South Carolina National Action Network President Elder James Johnson says it’s to be seen if that continues under Burgess’ administration.
Burgess is from North Charleston and has lived in North Charleston Black communities all his life. That creates a unique bond with the city’s nearly 50 percent Black population, Johnson said. That bond will help Burgess in forging relationships that can impact discrimination within the department as well as the city’s unprecedented homicide rate, Johnson said. North Charleston had 35 homicides in 2017 making it one of the nation’s most dangerous cities per capita.
North Charleston City Councilwoman Virginia Jamison said she’s elated that Burgess is the department’s chief. Burgess’ professional presence and ideals have been evident as he gained influence over the years. Now that he’s at the helm, that influence is magnified, she said. “He knows how the department operates and what causes its dysfunctions,” she added. “Now that we’ve tried the rest, let’s try the best,” she said.