NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — As North Charleston surged in population last decade, South Carolina’s third-largest city fought rising crime through a simple policing solution: Be aggressive. But the city’s Police Department lost the respect of many black residents in neighborhoods they blitzed, and now many are upset after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist by a white officer.
Police in North Charleston used computers to track the neighborhoods where crime was on the rise, then sent waves of officers to patrol and conduct traffic stops, looking for offenders and letting drivers know they were present and cracking down. By the numbers, the tactics worked: Every major category of crime, from murder to burglary to robbery to rape, fell significantly from 2007 to 2012, the last year for which statistics are available for the State Law Enforcement Division.
But anger is surfacing as civil rights leaders demand a full U.S. Justice Department investigation of the North Charleston force and its crime-fighting approach. The fatal shooting of Walter Scott as he fled after a traffic stop Saturday stirred outrage around the nation, but people in North Charleston familiar with the Police Department’s focus said they weren’t surprised.
“If the image of the city is more important than the lives of their citizens, there is going to be a problem,” said Dot Scott, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Charleston branch. She’s unrelated to the slain motorist.
The U.S. Justice Department is conducting a parallel investigation with a local prosecutor into whether there were civil rights violations in the killing of Walter Scott. The NAACP would like that expanded to a full probe of whether racism and lack of respect for civil rights is pervasive through the entire department — like the federal agency’s probe after of another black death at the hands of a law enforcement officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
North Charleston, which has suffered an image problem much of its history, formed in 1972 from the merger of several small communities such as Liberty Hill, which was first settled by free blacks and freed slaves at the end of the Civil War.
With just over 100,000 people, North Charleston grew by nearly 16,500 people or about 20 percent from 2000 to 2010. More than half of its residents are minorities, mostly African-Americans. Despite the effects of spillover prosperity from affluent Charleston next door, poverty endures in pockets in North Charleston. About 28 percent of its families make less than $25,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census.
For years, it battled an economic slump caused by the mid-1990s closing of the Charleston Naval Base on the city’s waterfront. For decades, city fortunes were tied to the base, where 38,000 people worked in the late 1980s amid illegal tattoo parlors and prostitution that were the seedy hallmarks of many military towns late last century.
But the city had plenty of land and proximity to booming Charleston, itself bounded on three sides by water. North Charleston has since bounced back, largely because of a huge investment by Boeing, which has a 787 aircraft manufacturing plant in the city and employs about 7,500 people in South Carolina, most in North Charleston.
Now North Charleston reaches from upscale subdivisions of $700,000 homes near the banks of the Ashley River through a thriving commercial district with its coliseum and outlets malls along Interstate 26 to the older, impoverished black neighborhoods near the old naval base.
And those poor and black residents have learned to band together and be cautious around a police force that is nearly 80 percent white. Several residents around the city this week told the same story about what they do when an officer turns on the lights to pull them over. They said they immediately call a friend to see if they are nearby and can walk over to be a witness to a traffic stop. If no one is close, the phone is kept on and placed on the seat in or the console so the person on the other end can listen, just in case.
“We’ve learned you have to have witnesses,” said one resident, 25-year-old Robert Blanton.
Blacks were routinely putting their hands in the air when police confronted them for years before “Hands up, Don’t shoot” became a slogan against aggressive policing in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, according to Blanton.
He said he has been stopped plenty of times for simply walking around his neighborhood after dark.
“I wonder — do they do that to whites walking in their neighborhood?” Blanton said.
North Charleston Police would say ‘yes.’ The department has refused to talk about its crime-fighting strategies in the days since Scott was killed and officer Michael Slager was charged with murder, saying they want to wait until after Scott’s funeral Saturday out of respect for his family.
But in a 2012 article in The Post and Courier of Charleston, then-Police Chief Jon Zumalt justified his more aggressive approach by saying it ensured people were obeying the law. And even if traffic stops didn’t lead to arrests, it got the word out that North Charleston was serious about fighting crime, he told the newspaper, which reported traffic stops in the city increased by about 3,000 to nearly 64,000 in 2011.
Numbers gathered by the state back that up. North Charleston had 26 murders in 2007 and 13 murders in 2012. The number of robberies in that five-year span fell 66 percent, while the number of burglaries dropped 29 percent, according to SLED figures.
Dot Scott, the local NAACP president who lives in North Charleston, said creating something akin to a police state shouldn’t equal success.
“When you take people’s liberty from them to see if they are a criminal, that’s not accepted. And I don’t think it would be accepted in a non-predominantly African American neighborhood,” she said.
Zumalt retired in 2012 and the city hired current chief Eddie Driggers. That hiring sparked curiosity because Driggers was known more as a police chaplain than an administrator.
His style was in stark contrast to the hard charging, tough-on-crime earlier chiefs. He tried to show empathy toward African Americans, even if he struggled to change the culture of traffic stops and harassment, said the Rev. Joseph Darby, the vice president of Charleston’s NAACP branch.
“I think he’s in over his head,” Darby said. “Especially now that he suddenly has this officer who has brought all this scrutiny down on what this department has been doing for years and years.