Lowcountry police chiefs discuss the line between public safety and police reform

Local News

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – As 2020 brought about a racial reckoning fueled by what many considered police brutality, calls came from across the country to reform, defund, and even abolish law enforcement departments. News 2’s Carolyn Murray met with two leaders in Lowcountry law enforcement to get their perspectives on the path forward.

Charleston Police Department (CPD) Chief Luther Reynolds says his goal is to have “a professional police organization that respects everybody.”

But Chief Reynolds knows that the relationship between the public and public servants has been strained for a while — especially following the riots in May of 2020, which saw dozens of fires, businesses left with broken doors and windows, and police cruisers torched and vandalized.

“I’m not going to be defensive and say we did everything right, because we didn’t.”

CPD Chief Luther Reynolds

All told, the city saw over $2 million in damages. As the city continues rebuilding and repairing the physical damages, Chief Reynolds says that his agency is working to repair the damaged relationship as well.

Chief Reynolds says that CPD is working to better coordinate with business owners and the community, letting them know when things like protests are expect.

The agency is also working to eliminate systemic racism and discrimination, problems highlighted by a 2019 Racial Bias Audit:

“I’ve been on recruiting calls where they have asked me ‘Do black lives matter? Is that important to your organization?’ And I say, yes, it is very important, and if there is somebody on this call who doesn’t think it’s important, you can’t be a police officer here.”

Among the Chief Reynolds’ top priorities is increasing diversity within the department and decreasing the over-policing of underserved neighborhoods.

He wants to make sure that his units “have the right strategies and… are focusing on the right problems and… are doing it as professionals who are treating people with dignity and respect.”

10 miles away in North Charleston, North Charleston Police Department (NCPD) Chief Reggie Burgess says that he looks at reform as a good thing.

Growing up in Liberty Hill and Union Heights, Chief Burgess is focused on developing a police force that reflects the population:

“Does [NCPD] look like the population in terms of diversity? No, it doesn’t. But we’ve been working hard since I became chief and we will change that.”

Chief Burgess reflects on ne particular incident that he believes created fissures in between the police and the public: the 2015 fatal shooting of Walter Scott by then NCPD officer Michael Slager:

“We are the one profession where one individual can cause problems for all of us.”

Scott was running away from Slager when he was shot. Chief Burgess said he is African American and his assistant chief is Caucasian, but neither of them have ever shot anyone in the back running away.

The incident was recorded on a cell phone. Slager is now serving a 20 year prison sentence.

Chief Burgess says that he tries to “give [his] officers, who the majority are white… the tools that they need to navigate around any situation in any community that they serve.”

Some best practices in NCPD include a ban on strangle/chokeholds, as well as knocking/announcing before serving a warrant.

NCPD also underwent a racial bias audit and Chief Burgess says that anywhere his department comes up short, he is committed to implementing better practices.

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