Last year on April 4, the nation watched a bystander’s video of a North Charleston police officer shooting and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed African American father, as he ran away during a routine traffic stop.
The video was seen all over the world and confirmed with devastating clarity, the demand for fundamental changes in policing practices nationwide.
Although local prosecutors charged the officer with murder and he is expected to go to trial in October, many persons who live and work in North Charleston believe that Mr. Scott is one of many victims of police misconduct.
“As we remember Walter Scott today, we must commit ourselves to ensuring that his death is not in vain. We can do that best by pressing for changes in policing, so that what happened to Mr. Scott at the hands of a police officer can never happen to any other resident of North Charleston,” said Monique Dixon, Deputy Policy Director at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), who leads the organization’s policing reform initiative.
Beginning last summer, the LDF, the North Charleston Branch of the NAACP, the ACLU of South Carolina, and other South Carolina leaders have pressed the Department of Justice to launch a “pattern or practice” investigation of the entire North Charleston police department. They are waiting for a final decision from the Justice Department. In the meantime, LDF and local civil rights leaders call on city leaders to change policing and other policies to build community trust in the justice system.
“Since Walter Scott’s death, city officials have implemented no meaningful, substantive reforms to alter policing practices,” said Edward Bryant, President of the North Charleston Branch of the NAACP. “It is time for city leaders to stop ignoring the problem and work with all of our community leaders to improve the quality of life for all residents in this city.”
At town hall meetings convened by LDF and local leaders in North Charleston, residents have described in detail a range of policing abuses including racially-biased traffic stops and excessive use of force against students of the city’s public schools. This testimony supported incidents described in news accounts and set out in LDF’s request to Attorney General Loretta Lynch for a federal investigation. These included the alleged brutal police beating of Sheldon Williams who sustained facial injuries after North Charleston police officers repeated stomped on his face in November 2011, and the 2003 police-shooting death of Ashbury Wylder, an African-American man with mental illness.
The town hall meetings also uncovered incidents involving seemingly racially-biased traffic stops. Louis Smith, Executive Director of the Community Resource Center, shared that in May 2013, a North Charleston police officer stopped him hours after he purchased a new Cadillac. “North Charleston police stopped my vehicle on the day I purchased a brand new car claiming it had a broken tail light,” said Mr. Smith. “When I explained that the car was brand new, the officer gave me a $250 ticket for careless driving. I later changed my car, obviously, because I drive through North Charleston quite regularly.”
On April 4, 2015, when Walter Scott ran from the police, his family believed he did so because of outstanding arrest warrants for failing to pay child support. The execution of these arrest warrants continues and disproportionately impacts African Americans, especially African American men. From January of 2015 through March of 2016, North Charleston police officers arrested and jailed 13 persons for failure to pay child support. Of those, 12 were African American (92%) and one was white (8%). African Americans comprise about 47% of North Charleston’s population, while white persons comprise about 38%.
Shaundra Scott, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina, states, “We need our police officers to be agents of public safety not debt collectors. Poor people who owe money should not live in fear of the police. We cannot develop the community trust that is needed for effective policing without putting aside the criminalization of poverty.”
To renew public trust in police, the North Charleston Police Department, along with other police departments nationwide, must act soon to carry out specific reforms, including:
- annual collection, disaggregation, and public reporting of arrests; use-of-force; and pedestrian and traffic stop data;
- anti-bias and de-escalation training, as well as training on how to effectively interact with youth and persons with mental illness and other disabilities;
- enforcement of these trainings through close monitoring of police conduct and the imposition of disciplinary actions or retraining; and
- timely investigation and resolution of civilian complaints against police.
To read more about the North Charleston town halls, click here.
To read more about incidents of excessive use of force by the NCPD, click here.
To read LDF’s letters to the DOJ, click here.