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  • Isabel Crews

Charleston Police Department tackles racial disparity

Updated: May 2, 2022

By Isabel Crews

Rénard Harris doesn't remember what reason the police officer gave for pulling him over years ago when he was driving through Mississippi to go to a family reunion.

And it certainly didn't cross his mind to question it, especially when the white officer seemed to change his tone with Harris, a black man, after discovering he was a professor.

But what he does remember is that before that moment, the color of his skin seemed to be the only real reason for not just being pulled over but being made to get out of his car and stand behind it to answer questions about where he was going, what he was doing, why he was there.

None of those merit being pulled over.

“To me, it was about value...We were out there for ten minutes, but once I started mentioning ‘professor,’ I think his value of me changed, and that’s all I can imagine,” said the College of Charleston professor and current chief diversity officer of the school. “I didn’t ask; I wasn’t brave enough to say, ‘Hey, why’d you hand me my license back and let me go.”

Even though Harris knew the answer to his questions, he knew better than to risk the danger of asking.

“My 'W' is getting in the car and driving away,” Harris recalled.

The recent deaths of black men and women like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Eric Garner in “traffic stops” that started similar to Harris’ have brought more attention to police departments across the nation.

In Charleston, South Carolina, a city that once thrived because of slave labor and fostered a culture of racism, has not yet rid itself of the impact of its dark past.

In 2017, 50-year-old Walter Scott was shot by Michael Slager, a police officer with the North Charleston Police Department, in what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Scott’s death, and the deaths of innocent black lives across the country, have illuminated issues with systemic racism within police departments around the nation - one of which is racial disparity.

Racial disparities in policing

The New York Times in 2015 ranked cities with the “largest percentage-point differences of white officers to white residents” from worst to best, and Charleston, South Carolina,

was No. 2.

According to the Times’ data, the demographics at CPD mostly reflected that of the population they policed, but in the North Charleston Police Department, 80% of officers were white while 62% of their community members were people of color, at the time of the ranking.

So, how are the two police departments aiming to fix this?

Each police department is a separate entity, and each has its own policies and procedures. CPD’s 2020-2025 Strategic Leadership Plan acknowledged the need to eliminate racial bias in policing, and they elected to do a CNA Racial Bias Audit.

CNA’s process for their racial bias audits is based on observation, research, and analysis. They collect data based on their observations and then analyze it to explain their findings and collaborate with organizations to improve their policies and understand areas for improvement.

Former director of research and procedural justice, Windy Stiver, expressed the departments’ desire to start having evidence-based traffic stops so that when officers do stop people, it is an act of procedural justice and helps prevent any targeted traffic stops.

Targeted traffic stops are when officers do not focus on areas prone to accidents and instead do them arbitrarily or where there is more crime. Evidence-based traffic stops combat this because the department will use data to find areas prone to accidents, and that when their officers do make stops, they are not making them arbitrarily.

Importance of diversity

Before police departments can adequately address why diversity within law enforcement is important, diversity advocates say it is crucial to first define what diversity means.

Marla Robertson, MPA program coordinator and community assistance program director at the College of Charleston, notes by definition it means a representation of people from different backgrounds who bring different lived experiences.

“So that the different voices and all the differences in the voices are represented in how we do our work and how we support the communities,” Robertson says.

When considering diversity in policing, people are urging for the diversity of thought and lived experiences, in addition to racial diversity.

However, having officers of different races represented in the police department is often emphasized more than other types of diversity because people in positions of authority should also look like and adequately represent the different members of the community, says Officer Terry Cherry.

“To make it all about aesthetics and not about thought processes and belief systems is foolish,” said Cherry.

Cherry believes that the primary way to attract the kinds of diverse people needed to impact a department is by working on internal practices.

“If you have progressive policies and procedures where people feel welcome, who are different, you are gonna have a much more diverse and successful agency,” Cherry said.

CPD is still looking for new ways to increase diversity in the department.

Wendy Stiver, the former director of research and procedural justice, told Live5News that most leadership roles in the Charleston police department are white. The department wants to find more strategies to seek out women and minorities for leadership roles.

Building relationships between police and the community

Harris, like many others in Charleston, knows there is still much to be done to build better racial relationships within the community.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the fact that one of the most egregious acts of hate occurred in the Holy City just six years ago when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African American members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. This act was out of racism and hatred, and it shook the Charleston community and the nation.

“The Charleston 9 AME Church pushed [distrust] to a whole ‘nother level. That was traumatic for the city, for the state, for the nation, for the world." - Rénard Harris, chief diversity officer, College of Charleston.

To Harris' personal interpretation looking at the racial disparity reports for downtown Charleston, "they’re traumatic."

Cherry and Sgt. Anthony Gibson were both working a shift during the Emanuel A.M.E. church shooting, and they try often to educate people by talking about their experiences. Newberry College recently invited them back for “Diversity Day” to discuss their experience.

As a department, they allow ride alongs and have a citizen’s academy to help educate citizens on what policing does. In recruitment, they go out to universities and host presentations and talk about different topics.

Cherry emphasizes the importance of, “educating people about the differences in how policing works and rebuilding an understanding of what law enforcement does.”

Despite these efforts, there is still a lot of community distrust of the police departments.

“Racial profiling has been something in the United States for a really long time, which compounds that distrust,” said Robertson.

A report by the Charleston Forum showed that white citizens tend to trust law enforcement more than their black neighbors. Respondents were asked to review seven statements and indicate whether they strongly agreed or disagreed with them. In the survey, 73.5% of black respondents compared to 40.6% of white respondents indicated that they strongly agreed with the statement, most officers racial profile when deciding to stop motorists.

In addition, 62.8% of white respondents had strong trust in police officers, and only 36% of black respondents did. Several of the other statements revealed similar differences between white and black respondents, indicating that the black community had serious concerns about racial profiling and being able to trust the officers in the police department.

What can police departments do?

“If initiatives are carried out in a meaningful way, I think that it can shift that problem of mistrust, and I think it can help rebuild communities’ trust in holistically believing that when you call the police, you will be protected,” Robertson said. “That when you call the police, you will be served. That you won’t be villainized; I have had multiple conversations with people who look like me and who have my same lived experience, who refuse to call the police.”

The Charleston Police Department’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan and other efforts include initiatives to increase the percentage of women in the department, conduct evidence-based traffic stops, safe place training, gender identity orientation training, and use the CNA Racial Bias Audit to make changes within the department steps towards change.

The plans and initiatives CPD intends to carry out from now until 2025 are hopeful for eliminating racial disparity, welcoming diverse officers, and building trust with the community.

The challenge is for CPD to keep looking for new ways to improve and for citizens of Charleston to learn more about policing and work with them to make change.

Although the Charleston community has not been able to see the impact of the CNA audit on the department yet, officers alike know they can always do more.

Cherry is on the National Council for Police Reforms and Race and notes they give police agencies all of these suggestions and ideas, but not how to implement them.

"And so, police departments are desperate to know how to implement things," Cherry says.

Cherry believes that in order to make significant changes and improvements they recommend, police departments must bring in the right people and have supporting leadership.

“You have to have the right people to be activists in the organization to take those suggestions and ideas and be able to help implement them. And then you have to have an executive leadership that empowers the people in rank and file and then also believes in the messaging." - Officer Terry Cherry, Charleston Police Department

To help support positive changes within CPD, activists can learn more about the department, policies, and procedures by attending CPD’s citizen’s academy to educate citizens, by going on a ride-along or attending their talks at universities around the state.

“Community needs to voice what they want, but they need to voice it from an educated point,” Cherry says. “Meaning, they can’t ask for something if A) You aren’t willing to put in the work as well, and B) If you don’t understand what we do.”

Cherry expressed that while activism and protests help put pressure on the department to make changes, they also need support from community members who want change to happen. She says that if community members and activists understand the police department and its current policies, procedures, and initiatives it is easier for them to make these initiatives happen.

One of the ways community members can make an effort to better understand the department is by participating in CPD’s citizen’s academy. This is a ten-week program consisting of several evening classes where participants in the program learn about police officer training and expectations, fair and impartial policing, traffic laws, forensics specialized units, response to resistance and aggression, professional standards, along with other topics.

“I am willing to support and encourage the work,”Robertson says. “Also willing to make recommendations and recognize where I have limitations in my perspective, but also stand by how real my experience as an individual citizen is here, despite my level of expertise as a College of Charleston leadership team member or a police department officer

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