Dear Chief Reggie Burgess,
First of all, please accept my heartfelt congratulations on your appointment as Police Chief of the City of North Charleston. This is a momentous occasion, one you have most certainly earned through your 29 years of dedicated service on the North Charleston police force.
I believe that you are taking over at a particularly interesting time. A 2017 Gallup poll which rated America’s overall confidence in police “rose” to a whopping 57%. This is up from a record tying low of 52% in June of 2015. This same poll cites the handling of the police shootings in both Ferguson and North Charleston as reasons why confidence in your industry has been so low.
While overall confidence in police is higher, the poll warns that the percentage rise actually masks a drop in confidence for three specific population segments:
• Hispanics (down from 59% in 2014 to 45% in 2017)
• Blacks (down from 35% in 2014 to 30% in 2017)
• Liberals (down from 51% in 2014 to 39% in 2017)
This is particularly concerning considering that our city has a population comprised of 47.2 percent Blacks and 10.9 percent Hispanics, according to 2010 Census data listed on the City of North Charleston’s website. That means at least 58% of your citizens are a part of group with a growing distrust of your chosen profession. I bring this up not as a scare tactic, but rather to alert everyone to the reality of the situation.
I read this book a few years ago — a gift from my friend Cathryn — called Rules for Radicals, written by a polarizing community activist and organizer named Saul D. Alinsky. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but I’d be more than happy to get you a copy. (I was going to suggest that you just borrow mine, but this book is so good, I think you need your own). Anyway, Rules for Radicals was published in 1971, but the concepts are just as relevant now. Alinsky’s belief was that no matter what the situation, if you follow the basic tenets listed in his book, you can rally people around your cause and make yourself a catalyst for change.
The book is filled with poignant quotes and anecdotes, but the most notable for me is Alinsky’s assertion (and I’m paraphrasing) that you cannot change the world until you accept it for what it is. He believed that viewing any landscape behind rose tinted glasses, while good for one’s immediate state of mind, will eventually cause more harm than good.
In your case, if an estimated 58 percent of your city’s population has a general distrust of the police, the first step to changing that is to accept those numbers, not run from them.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the transition of your predecessor Eddie Driggers to Special Assistant Mayor Keith Summey raises huge red flags to many citizens in the community. Some people are wondering if this is some kind of covert PR play — put a trusted black man as the face of the maligned police department while Driggers secretly calls the plays from the shadows. Again, this is simply a perception that may in no way reflect the reality of the situation. But to discount those feelings as nothing more than crazy talk does nothing to close the chasm of mistrust between your officers and those they are charged with protecting.
And I while I accept that the outset of your administration has some imminent challenges, I personally do not see them as being so substantial that they cannot be overcome. From where I sit, you have an opportunity to do some great things. For starters, continue to answer the call for transparency within the police department. Last May, the Department of Justice boasted about the launch of a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a collaborative assessment with the North Charleston Police Department, only for the initiative to be quietly and suddenly shuttered without a mumbling word. Requests from the mayor and community members to release the COPS report barely elicited a response from the DOJ. According to City Paper reporting: “Instead of releasing a full report highlighting shortcomings within the department and offering a clear set of recommendations to improve community trust, the COPS Office will now provide ‘technical assistance’ to requesting agencies.”
So after all that time, the DOJ refused to give North Charleston a concrete game plan on what to do to actually improve community trust? Between me and you, that’s pretty wack. But, on the bright side, therein lies an opportunity for you to showcase your commitment to the community. You don’t need Jeff Sessions’ permission to be transparent with the citizens of your hometown. Nor do you need a federal agency to tell you what areas need to be improved. You’ve literally been in these streets all your life. You already know what needs to be done. Furthermore, until you can come up with your own plan of action, just do what you’ve already been doing, namely being an ever present and active listener who can go to places and speak with people that other cops can’t or won’t.
Strive for aggressive and progressive change. Host community outreach listening sessions and facilitate ways for officers and citizens to interact in amicable, non-emergency situations.
In closing, I won’t be wishing you luck. You don’t need it. Instead, I’ll be wishing for your increased strength, for your wisdom to multiply, and for positivity to radiate from you every hour of the day. Oh, and send me a mailing address so I can send you that book.
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Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.