Has The North Charleston Police Department Changed Since Walter Scott’s Death?

On April 4, 2017, Rodney Scott speaks during a prayer vigil commemorating the police shooting
death of his brother Walter Scott on April 4, 2015. Photo: Tolbert Smalls, Jr.

By Barney Blakeney

April 4 marked five years since the North Charleston police shooting death of unarmed Walter Scott. I asked North Charleston officials how the department has changed since then.

A component of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston report titled “The State of Racial Disparities in Charleston County, South Carolina 2000-2015” outlined crime and policing in North Charleston. Here is some of what that report said:

“Of the approximately 340 sworn officers in the police Department, 62 are Black. North Charleston has a population of about 100,000. About 47 percent of residents are Black. Data on racial profiling and excessive use of force span multiple years and reflects a police culture that disproportionately harms the Black community in North Charleston. The shooting death of Walter Scott at the hands of North Charleston police should not be perceived as an isolated incident, but rather recognized as an outcome of a policing culture resulting from decades of police violence and unlawful policing practices.”

The report noted Black residents had a disproportionately higher share of citizen complaints against NCPD officers (60 percent) compared to their population of 47 percent. Black residents filed nearly twice as many complaints against police officers as their white counterparts. But complaints filed against officers by Black residents were sustained only 31 percent of the time versus 50 percent of complaints filed by whites which were sustained.”

After former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years for the 2015 murder of Walter Scott, Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. said, “Convictions of law enforcement officers who violate the civil rights of people of color are unforgivably few and far between – even in cases as egregious as this one. Despite a video that showed that Walter Scott was shot in the back as he ran from law enforcement, it took a federal prosecution to hold Officer Slager accountable after his state prosecution ended in a mistrial.”

Former North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant recently said not a lot has changed in the department since Scott’s death. A few more Black officers have been hired and some have received promotions, but a U.S. Department of Justice assessment report on North Charleston’s police department never was made and recommendations from other sources are not comprehensive enough, Bryant said.

But Bryant’s views somewhat contradict those of others closer to the administration. North Charleston Dist. 3 Councilwoman Virginia Jamison said the two-year-old administration of Police Chief Reggie Burgess has gone overboard to connect with Black residents in forging more positive interactions.

Despite that a citizen advisory commission created in 2017 was dissolved in January and the absence of the DOJ report, the police department has been working to make constructive change, Jamison said. She dismissed calls for an external audit similar to one done for Charleston Police Department as an inefficient use of limited financial resources. But candidly she added, “We still have work to do.”

Dist. 10 Councilman Michael Brown said he’s seen positive change in the past five years that include increased training and hardware (body cameras) that makes officers more accountable. And officers who cross the line more often face termination, Brown said. He echoed Jamison saying, “We still have a long way to go.”

Deputy Chief T.S. Deckard said in 2019 the department received 13 telephone calls and 68 walk-ins. “These numbers are everyone who approached the Office of Professional Standards and had a concern about an issue, not necessarily a formal complaint against an officer. Of those, we formally investigated 10 complaints against officers,” he said.

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