A commentary by Mayor Keith Summey.
I offer a response to the call for the City of North Charleston to create a new citizen’s oversight board and make other changes in the aftermath of the Walter Scott tragedy. The public would not be well served by allowing hasty adoption of un-vetted demands to replace the government process that has guided this city and this country since their founding. Let me use the North Charleston Civil Coalition for Reform (NCCCR) demands as reported in the June 8, 2015 Post Courier to illustrate.
1. Civilian Complaint Review Board to probe old and new complaints and develop policing initiatives.
The City of North Charleston already has the ultimate civilian oversight board: voters. These voters choose a City Council to represent them. Council members are charged with assuring all City employees, including the police, faithfully serve the public.
North Charleston citizens will soon vote again. If a majority believes that North Charleston Police Department policies should change, then change will come. If a majority believes Chief Driggers is moving in the right direction overall, and the Walter Scott tragedy was the result of one man’s terrible decision rather than the Police Department as a whole, then the elected council will take care of that too. Elected government works.
It is far from clear what benefit another board would provide. NCPD is already subject to multiple levels of outside scrutiny. For instance, the City already has a citizen advisory panel that works with NCPD. Additionally, every arrest made by NCPD is scrutinized by a judge and defense lawyer. Both are empowered to act upon any mistake. Conduct by police officers is subject to outside review by SLED and federal law enforcement officials. On top of all that, any person who believes they have been mistreated can take the matter to another civilian review board called a “jury.”
Notwithstanding the above, “good” can always be made better. To that end, the City has been actively gathering input on ways in which NCPD can improve. This process started well before the current tragedy. For instance, citizen complaints dropped by roughly 50% under Chief Driggers’ brief tenure. The Mayor and Council are constantly receiving information. The City has specifically enlisted the aid of Mr. Walter Atkinson of the United States Department of Justice. (Notably, NCCCR declined a recent invitation to participate in this Department of Justice process.) If this process leads to a recommendation for the City to take further action, then the City will act accordingly. The City is not, however, taking a prescription before even receiving a diagnosis.
2. Release of internal affairs records.
The City has for years made Internal Affairs information available through the Freedom of Information Act.
3. Firing of officers with multiple credible complaints and policy violations.
The City has an Office of Professional Standards to investigate officers. The City terminates police officers when appropriate. Further, as demonstrated in the Walter Scott matter, the City can and does invite SLED and other law enforcement entities to investigate its officers. Finally, NCPD is subject to oversight from an elected community citizens’ board (City Council) as well as potentially another kind of civilian oversight board (a jury) to be sure it handles this responsibility diligently. All of these processes are in place already.
4. Review of how people are targeted for police stops and code violations; amnesty program for municipal offenders.
The City identifies violations in much the same way as nearly every other jurisdiction does. Laws set forth a rule (i.e. a driver may not speed or a property owner may not dump garbage). These laws are adopted in public by elected representatives. Offenders are then generally identified in one of two ways. First, an officer may personally witness a violation. Second, an officer may receive a citizen complaint and then investigate. The outcome of that charge is not decided by the officer, but rather by a separate judge or jury. This is as our founding fathers intended.
Let me also address the call for amnesty. This assumes that the judge or jury “got it wrong” in all past cases. For over two centuries American government has been based on the idea that courts are the proper buffer between citizens and law enforcement. Setting aside trial verdicts en masse with amnesty runs contrary to this bedrock principle of American government.
5. Body camera program with penalties for turning off devices.
In January, months prior to the Scott tragedy, the City ordered body cameras to outfit part of the force and then purchased additional cameras to outfit the rest of the force immediately after the tragedy.
6. Special prosecutor for all deadly force cases.
South Carolina law designates the Solicitor and Attorney General as the state’s top prosecutors. Both are elected by the people. Both are subject to replacement if a majority of citizens believe that they are biased or ineffective. Elected prosecutors should not be replaced with a “special prosecutor” appointed by unknown means.
7. Monthly anti-racism training for officers.
Racism is not tolerated by the City. All employees receive training.
8. Diversification of police hiring, creation of African-American Business Development Office.
The City actively seeks a diverse workforce, including African-Americans. Regarding the Police Department, it is often difficult for the City to find significant numbers of qualified applicants.
For several years the City has helped fund the Charleston County Minority Business Development Office.
9. Programs that help residents avoid incarceration and homelessness, find business and education opportunities.
The City has heavily invested in improving the lives and opportunities of its citizens, especially its youth. The City provides police officers to every school within the City at no charge to the School Districts. After school programs for our children, economic revitalization in depressed areas, incentives to lure employers to the City, and the nationally recognized “STAND” program designed to steer low-level offenders into gainful employment instead of a cycle of imprisonment are just a few of many examples. The City has hired several of these individuals who successfully completed the program.
10. Diversification of planning board.
Far from turning away minority candidates, the consistent problem has been finding a sufficient number of diverse people of any race/ethnicity willing to serve in time consuming, unpaid night positions.
11. Task force on economic inclusion and diversity for less fortunate communities.
As mentioned above, the City works tirelessly to improve opportunities for and the standard of living of all of its residents. No stone is left unturned – whether that requires building ball fields, partnering with local elementary schools, putting computer workshops into community centers, working to help small businesses, or recruiting Fortune 500 companies. To question the City’s dedication, effort or success is to ignore the reality.
The City is constantly working to improve. It has received an enormous amount of input that will be thoroughly considered by elected representatives. Those representatives will find the course that best serves our community. Setting aside this process to immediately install demands made by any one voice is simply not consistent with the American process of government. If suggestions have merit, whether made by NCCCR or anyone else, then the peoples’ elected representatives will adopt them.
In our government of the people, by the people and for the people, the people will decide.
This commentary was originally published in the Post and Courier on June 14, 2015.