By Shaundra Scott and Estherjoy Mungai
Four years ago, on the fourth day of the fourth month of the year, Walter Scott was killed by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. The entire nation turned to North Charleston as footage of the horrific shooting forced us, once again, to confront the painful relationship between people of color and the police entrusted to serve us. As we look back on what’s changed since that fateful day, it’s clear that far too much has stayed the same.
Individual accountability for Mr. Scott’s murder represents one of the few positive developments in recent years. The North Charleston Police Department (NCPD) fired officer Slager and settled a civil suit with Mr. Scott’s family worth over $6 million. After a mistrial in state court, former officer Slager entered a guilty plea in federal court and received a sentence of 20 years, becoming one of the very rare cases where a law enforcement officer has been convicted for killing a civilian.
Unfortunately, systemic accountability has been more difficult to secure. A review of data from four years ago shows that Black residents were disproportionately stopped by North Charleston police. They comprise 47 percent of the population but account for 58 percent of traffic stops each year since 2015. In response to Mr. Scott’s death and these startling statistics, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) hosted townhalls with the ACLU of South Carolina, North Charleston Branch NAACP, and Community Resource Center. Hundreds of residents showed up for the opportunity to tell their stories of being stopped and mistreated by officers in North Charleston and Charleston alike. North Charleston leaders sent letters to the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division asking for a civil rights investigation. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) held actions with hundreds of participants that called on the leadership of both North Charleston and Charleston to open themselves up to external, independent assessments for racial bias that would make transparent the policies and practices; offer recommendations for improvement; and engage the community in truly meaningful ways to build trust. Federal and local leaders initially ignored these demands.
But shortly after CAJM’s Action in April of 2016, North Charleston announced DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) agreed to conduct a Collaborative Reform Assessment of the NCPD. Though lacking the enforcement power of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division investigation, it was a step toward transparency and accountability for the NCPD. The DOJ assigned the Police Foundation to conduct the assessment over the next several months, looking at racial bias in policies and practices such as stops and use of force.
North Charleston appeared to be moving ahead while Charleston lagged. In the summer of 2017, the proposal to hire a qualified company to conduct an independent racial bias assessment of the of the Charleston Police Department failed in a close vote after Mayor Tecklenburg argued passionately against it for over 30 minutes in a tense city council meeting. Charleston Police Chief Mullen left shortly thereafter, and a nationwide search for a new chief began.
But in fall 2017, the situations in the two cities reversed. After the change in administrations, the DOJ announced it would no longer support collaborative reform assessments and withheld the long-anticipated report on NCPD. Despite community actions calling on Mayor Summey, the North Charleston City Council, and the DOJ to release the near final report, it has remained withheld from public view. In a case that is still pending, LDF sued DOJ under the federal Freedom of Information Act for access to the report and the underlying documents. Though North Charleston renegotiated technical assistance from DOJ for the NCPD, the much-needed accountability provided by a report into the policies and practices that fostered racial inequities, including recommendations on how to address them remain glaringly absent, making it hard to see if changes are happening under new police Chief Burgess.
Charleston on the other hand unanimously voted in fall 2017 for an independent assessment of racial bias by the Charleston Police Department. In the last year, Charleston hired a new police chief Reynolds and CNA Analysis to conduct the assessment. In March 2019, CNA held several community meetings all over Charleston. Almost 300 people – 75 percent of whom were Black – attended and shared their insights, more meetings are planned. In contrast, North Charleston recently conducted an online survey asking about community relations with the police. While almost 1,000 people responded, 73 percent of respondents were white in a city that’s almost 50 percent black.
After all that, did anything actually change? Data from both cities still show wide racial disparities in traffic stops. Charleston appears further on the road to reform, but it remains to be seen how it will respond when the final report on the CPD is released. North Charleston continues to ignore the community’s demand for an independent assessment for racial bias to replace the COPS report we were promised.
On April 4, 2019, we honored the life of Walter Scott by resolving to continue to pursue justice in his name. Individual accountability is hard to secure, but systemic accountability is infinitely harder. Change won’t happen overnight, and it requires the unwavering commitment of community members and leaders alike. At town halls, community actions, and in so many other arenas, community members in both Charleston and North Charleston are working to meet the challenge of addressing racially-biased policing. It is time for city leaders to double their efforts to do the same.
Shaundra Scott is the executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina.
Estherjoy Mungai is a community organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. and a former North Charleston resident.