Citizens pushing for more power for North Charleston police panel

November 4, 2016 GMT

Some North Charleston residents say they want a citizens advisory group to improve police and community relations that has the power to promote a cultural change, not a feel-good group that maintains the status quo.

City Council agreed in August to form the North Charleston Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Community-Police Relations, a 25-member body to enhance communication between the police department and the community in the wake of the Walter Scott shooting.

The plan was set to come before council for final approval on Nov. 10, but a public meeting Wednesday to review the plan was so contentious, the matter likely will bounced back to a committee for additional scrutiny.

Scott, 50, fled from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop and fought with former North Charleston Police officer Michael Slager before the policeman shot him five times as he ran away. Slager said that Scott had grabbed his Taser before a bystander captured the shooting death on video. Slager’s trial began this week.

At issue is whether the new commission, when reviewing complaints from the public about police, would have the power to subpoena police officers and others in connection to those complaints. The latest proposal doesn’t include the group having that kind of power, and North Charleston officials are reluctant to consider it.

The city held a public meeting Thursday to review and discuss the plan, but about half of the 50 attendees walked out in protest.

Rev. Nelson Rivers, who attended the first part of the meeting but had to leave early to attend another, said the process for forming the committee has not been transparent or inclusive, and many of the people originally called on to help form it simply stopped participating.

The proposal on the table used weak programs as models, he said, and committee members wouldn’t have any power. He also said the committee would have many members selected by City Council but he would prefer to see them picked by community groups.

If that happened, it could promote a cultural change in the police department, he said.

Rivers also thinks the current plan for the board gives North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey too much power. “It’s not Summeyville. It’s North Charleston,” Rivers said.

He also said he hopes the city will revise its plans for the group.“North Charleston has the chance to form a committee without looking like the fix is in,” Rivers said.

Summey said the city has worked worked extensively with Walter Atkinson, a community relations expert from the U.S. Department of Justice, to establish the plans for the commission. The city also has community input to build a fair and representative committee. “I support the commission as is currently presented, but if reasonable improvements are suggested, future amendments will certainly be considered,” Summey said.

After the commission is fully formed, Summey said it will further enhance communications between the community and the police department, promote community policing programs, and provide ongoing support to the department through suggested changes to the department’s policies and procedures.

North Charleston City Councilman Bob King attended the meeting and sees things differently than the participants who walked out.

He thinks the walk-out was staged. “Some people came to the meeting to destroy it,” he said. And Atkinson, who was leading the meeting, allowed that to happen. “They didn’t want to know about the committee,” he said of those who walked out. “They wanted to get their names in the paper and to get on TV.”

The city isn’t likely to give the group subpoena power, King said, and he’s not even sure it could if it wanted to. The opponents of the plan “want to run the police department,” he said. “They would like us to turn the police Department over to the citizens’ advisory council.”

But, King said he thinks the plan should go back to committee for review, and he’s hopeful the issues can be worked out. “I think we can work it out if everybody keeps an open mind. That’s my hope anyway.”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, said he supports the citizens who want the committee to have subpoena power, and he thinks state law allows it. He filed an amendment to a bill last year that would have established police review panels in the state’s largest counties, including Charleston County. The amendment was dropped from the bill, he said, but he plans to file similar legislation next year.

He said he thinks police departments need more oversight. Payments from the state insurance reserve fund related to police officer shootings have increased, he said, which indicates such incidents are escalating. “If we don’t bring some level of oversight to our local law enforcement agencies, it will continue to skyrocket,” he said.

And he thinks citizens’ oversight groups should have subpoena power. He said such groups are successful in Atlanta and Miami.

Elder James Johnson, from the National Action Network, walked out of Thursday’s meeting and said Friday the plan “gives authority to the police department, and we’re not going to go for it. No way.”

“The culture of that department needs to change,” he added. “The same old people have been doing the same old things for 25 years.”

Citizens simply don’t trust the North Charleston Police Department, Johnson said, adding that only a committee with subpoena power will begin to turn that around.

“There is no compromise to this,” he said. “The citizens have spoken.”