Tale of two cities: North Charleston zooms ahead in racially equal police stops

The Post and Courier today published an op-ed by Beyond Catfish Row Editor Tom Grubisich headed "North Charleston takes the lead in this tale of two cities." The article (reprinted below) shows how North Charleston, in contrast to Charleston, has greatly reduced racial disparities in its police traffic stops, and is significantly cutting back on the overall number of stops.

Tom Grubisich

For months, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry and the City of North Charleston were hurling angry charges at each other on the racially hyper-sensitive issue of police traffic stops. When negotiations between the two sides broke down in the spring, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers accused CAJM of “bullying tactics.” CAJM member Kim Westerson fired back, saying such accusations were “intentionally deceitful.”

Both Driggers and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey rebuffed CAJM’s invitations to attend its “Nehemiah Action Assembly” in March. At the rally, their empty chairs were prominently labeled with placards bearing their names. 

But amid all the back-and-forth denunciations, the North Charleston Police Department has been quietly reducing its disproportionately high number of police stops of black motorists compared to white drivers. It has also accelerated its reduction in stops overall – deciding, in effect, they aren’t that important in its fight against the city’s crime rate, which is very high in some, mostly black neighborhoods.

The chart below shows what has been happening on the ground – or, rather, on the road – in the wake of charges and counter-charges flying at meetings, press conferences, rallies and in social media.

Based on North Charleston police stops made between January and May, the year should end with about 60% of the contacts targeting black motorists, an analysis by the Beyond Catfish Row blog shows. That number is very close to the percentage of the black population of the city compared to whites – 57%. Just three years ago, black drivers were involved in 68% of stops, and that was when the black percentage of the city population was smaller.

The chart also shows the dramatic decline in overall stops. For 2016, stops should end up being a little more than a quarter of what they were in 2013.

What’s behind these big changes in North Charleston? This is what city spokesman Ryan Johnson told me:

“There have been no policy changes at North Charleston Police Department regarding traffic stop procedures.  However, as demonstrated by the data, stops are down and that trend actually began before April of 2015.  We believe a variety of factors contribute to the change.  Among other things, these would include the difference in enforcement and policing philosophy of Chief Driggers compared to that of his predecessor, NCPD’s reflection of a national trend away from the once ubiquitous low (zero) tolerance models of policing, and NCPD’s reflection of changing local preferences in terms of its mission.”

However Johnson’s seemingly contradictory explanation is decoded, the numbers on police stops in the chart speak for themselves: North Charleston is very close to doing what the Charleston Area Justice Ministry has been advocating. It’s also doing what the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing recommends in its 2015 report: “Law enforcement agencies and municipalities should refrain from practices requiring officers…to initiate investigative contacts [police stops] with citizens for reasons not directly related to improving public safety.”

But black motorists in North Charleston who head down Meeting Street into the City of Charleston are, statistically, more likely to have a far different, and unhappy, experience. Beyond Catfish Row’s analysis shows that racial disparities in Charleston’s traffic stops today are almost as great, percentage-wise, as they were at their high point three and four years ago (see chart below). The white population of Charleston is three times greater than the black population. But blacks still account for 40% of police stops, a single percentage point lower than 2013’s peak.

The racial disparities in the Charleston numbers don’t mean, automatically, that city police discriminate against blacks. City officials say a significant number of incidents may be “poverty stops” involving poor black drivers who have a hard time financially repairing vehicle defects that catch police attention (e.g., a broken taillight). The racial composition of high-crime, predominantly black neighborhoods – where many stops are made – could skew the numbers too, city officials say. But, on the other hand, tourism puts about 10,000 more vehicles onto Charleston streets daily, and 97% of those vehicles are driven by whites.

Charleston’s Police Department has launched an Illumination Project to build better relations between its officers and the community – the mission of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The project held several dozen “listening sessions” this spring and is gathering written feedback that it will air at meetings on Aug. 9 and 11 at Greater St. Luke AME Church in Charleston before it makes its recommendations for a comprehensive action plan in September.

In gathering information for its recommendations, the IP’s Citizens Advisory Committee, we should hope, will look at what North Charleston is doing in traffic stops that’s so different from Charleston in reducing racial disparities. Let us hope it will also look at that report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing which calls for the elimination of police stops that don’t make the community safer. 

Finally, we hope it will listen to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. On July 1, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, CO, Lynch compared 20th century policing – with its “warrior” approach in law enforcement, shaped by the drug trade and its accompanying violence – to the “guardian” approach of the 21st century, with community-centric standards and expectations. She said:

“The pendulum swung too far in [the warrior] direction. To say there is a frayed relationship of trust between law enforcement and many communities, especially minority communities, is the understatement of the generation.”

Dallas Police David Chief Brown brought this kind of community policing to his city before the six local officers were killed in last week’s ambush and he remains foursquare behind it after the tragedy that sent the country reeling. 

Standing next to his boss, Mayor Mike Rawlings, at a press conference last Thursday, Brown said: “Police officers are guardians of this great democracy… And so we won’t militarize our policing standards, but we will do it in a much safer way every time. Like we chose to do it this time [using a robot to detonate an explosive that killed suspected killer Micah Johnson]….We are not going to let a coward who would ambush police officers change our democracy. We are not going to do it. Our city, our country, is better than that.”

The author is is founder and editor of the local blog Beyond Catfish Row and a former Washington Post reporter, and lives in Charleston.