Lauren Hurlock

Protests over George Floyd’s death hit Charleston on the weekend of May 30. A wave of unrest traveled across the nation after Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer. The protests have given renewed energy to the way the nation views systemic power and racism. Locally, activists and the police have started analyzing the way the Charleston Police Department has treated the black community.

‘Everybody’s paying attention now’

Conducted in 2019, Charleston Police Department’s racial bias audit assessed several areas of police work, including use of force and traffic stops.

Among the findings, racial disparities were noted in the rate of traffic stops and search decisions during stops where a warning was issued. Data on the use of force was also found to be missing statistics like officer details, time of incident and reason for use of force. Each finding has a recommendation from CNA, the company overseeing the audit.

Wendy Stiver, CPD’s director of procedural justice, said one of the “key elements” is to improve CPD’s work with the Citizen Police Advisory Council. “The last meeting they had was in January [because of the pandemic] and we’ve been struggling to get that on track,” she told the City Paper at a June 4 protest. “But, I think everybody’s paying attention now.”

“There were areas in our department that we know we can do better [in],” Chief Luther Reynolds said.

Reynolds wants to go beyond metrics and create a learning organization that is “constantly auditing itself” and “constantly transparent and accountable to the communities.”

“I’ve said from the beginning that this is going to give us the resources and attention, the partnerships that we need,” he said. “The things that are being demanded, it’s in the pages and in the content of this audit.”

“Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing a great job, our tickets are up,’ we’re trying to be thoughtful and look at the data analytics, looking at where we’re writing tickets, who we’re writing tickets to, what are the outcomes.”

Reynolds believes the audit will give clear directives for the police department to follow.

The racial bias audit contained almost 50 recommendations, which will be used to inform the police’s five-year strategic plan, currently in development.

Confronting a bias

Racial disparities in policing have been noted in the Lowcountry for years. In 2014 and 2015, black youth arrest rates led over rates for whites by more than 50 percent in Charleston and nearly 70 percent in North Charleston, according to a report from the Avery Research Center. With other insights like an American Civil Liberties Union study on racial disparities in marijuana arrests, advocates believe police unfairly target the black community.

Frank Knaack, executive director of ACLU of South Carolina, applauds the city for committing to the audit, but believes it does not get to core issues like the “ever-expanding role of law enforcement.”

“They can have great policies in place, but that’s actually not going to make sure another black man is not murdered by law enforcement,” Knaack said. “Just like what happened with Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis. That officer violated department policy when he had his knee on George Floyd’s neck and all those officers standing next to him for those 8 minutes and 43 seconds also violated policy by not intervening.”

Knaack added that we should rethink the role of public safety and what it means. He also believes that a five-year plan is “way too slow and the goal is way too small.”

In South Carolina, police have come under scrutiny for tactics used on protesters, which have been described as militaristic by some.

On May 31, the day after riots struck downtown, police in riot gear met protesters congregating in Marion Square with tear gas and pepper balls. That same day, they marched into a downtown housing area, firing projectiles and deploying smoke. A CPD spokesperson said officers were protecting nearby firefighters and used “crowd control munitions” when residents threw unidentified objects at officers.

Some protesters in the local chapter of Black Lives Matter began coordinating their efforts with CPD after the weekend of unrest.

Tamika Gadsden of Charleston Activist Network believes the city moved quickly to protect its “crown jewel,” the tourist district.

Gadsden, who has been outspoken about the Charleston protests on social media, points to incidents on the Eastside and in Marion Square as reinforcement that the “city is not serious about reformation.” Gadsden believes the racial bias audit is “incomplete,” because of missing information.

“I think that it deserves scrutiny for who conducted the audit,” she added. “It was conducted by former law enforcement officials.”

Defunding or defending?

Depending on who you talk to, “defunding” police can mean a ground-up reconstitution of local law enforcement or more-modest budget shuffling. Knaack said the ACLU believes in “divesting from police,” instead putting money in youth programs, job training and mobile mental health crisis centers.

“We need to just socially reduce the number of police we have in society and reduce their role in society,” Knaack said. “We don’t think there can be equitable policing really ever the way they’re currently structured because right now we’ve turned police into society’s solution for drug use, kids misbehaving in school, people experiencing a mental health crisis, things police don’t have the training or tools to deal with.”

Reynolds said that scrutinizing budgets and accountability is a good idea. “I would say that there are agencies that need to be very closely scrutinized,” he said. “The topic of defunding is an important discussion.”

Stiver recognizes that racial equity in policing is an issue that stretches across multiple fields, adding that police should make partnerships with other organizations.

“When we talk about the racial inequity in policing, we have to also talk about the racial inequity … across our entire system. If we fix just policing alone, we’re not going to fix policing because those other systems are going to contribute to this.”

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