By Tom Grubisich
After the final round of no’s from local public officials last night about controversial police stops of motorists, Charleston Area Justice Ministry leader Ed Bergeron walked dejectedly to the podium and said: “To say I am disappointed is an understatement. To say I am severely disappointed is an understatement. We expect more from our public officials.”
Bergeron, who represents St. John’s Catholic Church in North Charleston, one of the 30 congregations that make up CAJM, delivered his bleak judgment at the Ministry's annual Nehemiah Action Assembly held in the sanctuary of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston.
But it was not clear after the evening, despite extensive CAJM questioning of elected officials from the governments of North Charleston and the City of Charleston, how divided the two sides actually were about the traffic stops, which the Ministry contends unfairly single out black motorists.
The murkiness of the controversy was especially apparent in questioning of the single member of the North Charleston City Council to show up, Mike A. Brown, who joined the governing body in January. Brown told the audience of 2,000 he would not support the Ministry’s proposal for an independent audit of the city police department’s controversial “investigatory” police stops of motorists.
“An audit doesn’t do anything but reveal what we already know," Brown said, under intense questioning by CAJM leader the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church. "We all know that there’s a problem. An audit is not going to solve it.”
But Brown did agree, and unhesitatingly, to CAJM’s more general proposal calling for the City of North Charleston to take “specific and measurable stops to reduce the number of investigatory police stops.” His disagreement with CAJM was focused on its separate proposal for an independent audit of North Charleston's Police Department based on “bias-based policing, specifically stops, questioning, frisks and searches.”
CAJM research shows that between 2010 and 2015, North Charleston police made 130,000 stops of motorists for minor infractions, like a dim light on a license plate, without issuing citations. CAJM said the stops were the highest number for any jurisdiction in the state. Police in the City of Charleston had the second highest number – 127,000 – CAJM said. Columbia, which is about the same size as Charleston, had only 33,000 in the same period, CAJM said its research showed.
CAJM has said it's pleased to find that North Charleston's police stops have declined significantly since the Ministry compiled its numbers for 2010-2015. But it still maintains there are too many, and that they disproportionately target blacks.
North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey and his Police Chief, Eddie Driggers, had angrily boycotted the Nehemiah, saying in a statement before the event: “There is no indication that the Nehemiah Action Assembly will garner any other results, based on previous experiences…. CAJM’s mission may be worthwhile, but their tactics and insular views are unfortunately unavailing.”
Their empty seats at the assembly were prominently labeled with Summey and Driggers' names.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and four of the nine members of the Charleston City Council did mount the stage Monday night to answer questions from Rivers. But despite the pastor's close-to-prosecutorial grilling, CAJM did not get the answers it wanted to hear. What ensured was more murkiness.
Standing at the podium, feet away from Tecklenburg and the Council members, who were lined up in a row, Rivers laid out the rules: “Please answer the questions with a yes or a no. Afterwards, you will have 30 seconds to explain your answers.”
Rivers put his first question – about whether the public officials would direct Police Chief Gregory G. Mullen to form a task force aimed at reducing investigatory police stops – to Tecklenburg: “No, sir,” the Mayor answered. Tecklenburg said the total number of city police stops of motorists that did not result in a citation was not huge for a force of 150 officers. The total of 127,000 stops over five years amounted to “one stop by one officer every third day,” he said.
Mullen did not accompany his recent new boss, who took office in January, to the Nehemiah.
Tecklenburg said not all police stops are “investigatory” – where the officer has enough “reasonable” suspicion to escalate a "contact" stop to the next level that can lead to extensive questioning beyond the original alleged traffic infraction and even a pat-down of the motorist. He said there were many more “contact” stops where the officer was doing no more than stopping the motorist for an infraction like a defective taillight or failure to signal for a turn soon enough. Contact stops often do not lead to the officer issuing a citation, but only giving a warning to the motorist to fix the problem.
Tecklenburg said the real problem focused on how motorists were treated when they were stopped. He repeatedly stressed that any discrimination in stops was unacceptable, but did not say specifically whether there were enough stops to be called racially discriminatory and thereby merit official city action.
Rivers, who said he had been stopped as a motorist by police in Charleston “at least 10 times” and “more than 10 times in North Charleston without a "piece of paper" ever being issued, persisted in his questioning of Tecklenburg about whether he would direct Police Chief Mullen to form a task force aimed at reducing the number of investigatory stops.
“The way you ask the question, I would have to say no,” Tecklenburg answered, alluding to the distinction he made between “contact” and “investigatory” police stops.
Rivers went on with his questioning, but Tecklenburg said: "If we’re enforcing the law, I can’t tell my police officers not to enforce the law,” Tecklenburg. Traffic stops are based on laws covering motorists and their vehicles passed by the state legislature.
The four Charleston Council members asked the same questions by Rivers were Keith Waring, James Lewis, Dean Riegel and Rodney Williams. Their answers were generally the same as Tecklenburg’s. Like the Mayor, they said they opposed any discrimination in police stops, but said CAJM’s recommendations on independent audits of the city Police Department conflicted with how the city had to act legally on such issues.
Police stops have led to controversy in jurisdictions around the country about whether they're racially motivated. The Supreme Court in 1996 sanctioned routine stops that become investigatory if the officer has “reasonable” suspicion that the motorist may have committed an offense more serious than a traffic infraction. In such circumstances, the officer can pat down the motorist.
Under the Supreme Court's 1996 decision, a police officer needs only to stop a motorist for a traffic violation to set in motion the more serious "investigatory" stop -- the kind that led to the fatal police shooting of 50-year-old North Charleston father Walter L. Scott on April 4 of last year.
In earlier action at Monday night's Nehemiah Action Assembly, four members of the Charleston County school system’s elected Board of Trustees went to the stage to say they would support CAJM's call for a broader program of "Restorative Practices" aimed at further reducing the number of suspensions of students. Most suspended students are black, according to CAJM data. The four trustees at the Nehemiah were Kate Darby, Michael Miller, Rev. Chris Collins and Rev. Eric Mack. The other five members of the board – Cindy Bohn Coats, Chairman, and Todd Garrett, Tom Ducker, Chris Staubs and Tripp Wiles – were not in attendance.