[image-1]Almost one year after the announcement of an ambitious project to strengthen trust between citizens and law enforcement, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen stood before members of City Council Tuesday evening to present a finalized plan for the Illumination Project. With a total of 86 strategies culled from public listening sessions, national studies, and police staff, Mullen stressed that this plan is just the beginning of something greater.
“We’re at a pivotal moment in our country as it relates to police trust and legitimacy, and to do nothing is not an option. It is not an option, and to engage in a journey that is challenging and risky and has the potential to inform generations to come has been our responsibility and, I think, one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had,” Mullen told City Council. “Tonight, I present to you this report. I hope you take a look at it and read it and understand that this is a bold and challenging effort that we’re about to undertake. What I would ask for you to do is as we undertake this, as the leadership of this community, I would ask for you to support us, to challenge us, to hold us accountable, just like I would ask the community to do. Because we told them 12 months ago that we would put something together that would make a difference in Charleston, and I really believe that has happened.”
The chief’s presentation was preceded by the citizens participation period of Tuesday’s council meeting, during which members of the public spoke on both sides of the proposed plan. Those in favor of the project said that they’ve seen a noticeable change in the discourse between police and citizens in their communities. On the other side, there were speakers who argued that the public must be weary of the Illumination Project being just a P.R. stunt and suggested that a true path to improvement would require spending less of the city’s money on law enforcement and investing more directly into the community. Charleston’s 2016 budget dedicated more than 51 percent or $82.2 million of the general fund operating budget to public safety, more than half of which went to police.
With the presentation of the final plan for the Illumination Project came a list of strategies to be implemented between now and 2020. Recently, public recommendations were taken into account to decide which of these strategies would take priority and be put into place in 2016. One of these strategies involves collaborating with those living in high-crime neighborhoods to develop crime-reduction strategies. These efforts are to be measured by identifying the top five crime-prone neighborhoods in the city, conducting public listening sessions with residents living in these areas to develop strategies to reduce crime, and measure the change in crime rates.
Other strategies to be implemented in 2016 include increasing training hours for officers to focus on unconscious bias, cultural differences, and interacting with individuals with mental health issues; promoting de-escalation as a core principle of training; providing instructional material on protocols for citizen/police encounters and expanding interaction during non-crisis situations; and establishing a Police Citizen Advisory Council. This council would be tasked with working with police to develop and evaluate policies regarding use of force, administrative investigations, hiring practices, and external reviews of the department.
The effectiveness of the strategies set forth in the plan will be evaluated by the College of Charleston’s Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, which also conducted a study of police perception in the Charleston area as part of the Illumination Project. Among their findings were significant gaps in the public’s perception of law enforcement officers when race was taken into account. Although a public survey found that Charleston police are viewed more positively compared to police in general, white citizens shared a more positive view of officers compared to black members of the community. Researchers reported that “helpful interactions” with the police has a much larger positive effect on how black citizens perceive officers than white individuals. This is the opposite case with “criminal interactions,” which were found to more negatively affect how white citizens view the police.
“I can’t think of anything more fundamentally important than what this Illumination Project is doing because it leads us to build respect and trust, not only among our citizens, but between our police and our citizens,” said Mayor John Tecklenburg following Mullen’s presentation. “What’s more important for our city than public safety? … This is something that our community will not just talk about and not just hold hands, but we’ll actually have a strategic plan moving forward that will build trust and that I believe will be the national model for building trust in the community.”