[image-1] Reggie Burgess took to the streets Wednesday morning looking more like an inspired community activist than the head of the 340-officer North Charleston Police Department.
Emphasizing the need to improve community-police relations, as well as the responsibility of citizens to alert authorities about suspected threats, his “Stop the Violence” march seeks to put the onus on citizens to help police themselves.
About 10 citizens marched with officers outside of the Bradley Square Apartments on Rivers Avenue during a sweltering Wednesday morning, just one day after a 29-year-old man died from gunshot wounds after being found lying in the complex’s parking lot. It was the third homicide in a week for the city of North Charleston, and the eighth so far this year, according to a NCPD spokesperson.
Burgess first marched by himself on Mon. March 5 to raise awareness of the record number of homicides in his city in 2017, according to Live 5 News. He took to the streets again two days later, accompanied by a few officers. On Wednesday, he was joined by over a dozen members of his force.
“The message is law enforcement, the community, we can create a safe neighborhood,” Burgess said in an interview after the march. “We understand that the field of law enforcement has taken a turn, but how do we turn it around?”
Burgess, the first African-American police chief in North Charleston, says the public actions are just one part of some much-needed relationship-building between his department and the residents of the 47 percent African-American city.
Though he emphasizes that the department focuses much of its efforts on preventing crime by doing things like attending community meetings, performing “spotlight walks” alongside citizens, and supporting recreation programs for the youth, he admits that preventing further violence requires people to contact authorities they don’t always feel have their back.
A 2017 Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who shared “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in the police was 57 percent, returning to a 25-year average after a dip in confidence following shootings of unarmed black men by law enforcement. In contrast, only 30 percent of African-American respondents felt the same.
“That distrust can be attributed to never having a relationship,” Burgess said. “You can’t talk about it. You gotta get out here and do it. This is the action part.”
A North Charleston advisory commission on police-community relations was formed more than a year after the 2015 fatal shooting of unarmed motorist Walter Scott by North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. The case, and the ensuing trials, shined a national spotlight on the Charleston area and became yet another example in the national debate over the use of force by police.
Burgess says that his focus isn’t on improving officer training or behavior, at least not with this series of marches. He was initially inspired by a March homicide in which a man was found dead on CSX Railroad property.
“When I found out about that, the first thing I did was get out and walk in the area that he got killed in, and let the folks know that we’re not going to stand for it,” Burgess said.
Burgess’ latest efforts don’t surprise North Charleston City Council member Mike A. Brown.
“He would always show up to community events,” Brown said. “Before me being elected, there were events I had that he would show up and support. He’s actually been in the streets and in the trenches in North Charleston for years.”
Brown says that, over the years, he’s noticed that certain people are “afraid” to talk to law enforcement about their concerns.
“We’re coming to these communities and we’re saying, ‘We weren’t here. You have the eyes and ears to solve these crimes, and we need your help doing it,'” he said.
Brown says he’s seen people’s trust in the police grow after Burgess was sworn-in in January.
Mark Hammersmith, 66, is one of those people. He’s lived in North Charleston for over five years, during which he says he’s known of at least half a dozen homicides near him. His opinion of the police department upon moving to the city was “not good at all,” he says, comparing them at one point to the Nazi secret police force.
“I think [the marches] are to try and get the citizens more involved, to try to understand the problem,” he says. “I think that’s what [Burgess is] trying to do, is point out how serious the issue is.”
Burgess said he has no plans for other marches as of today.