North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey says he has requested the highest level review of the city's police department by a U.S. Justice Department program.
Summey told reporters Friday morning he had sent a request for a three-year review of his city's police agency by the Community-Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program.
"We believe our department operates very well," Summey said. "There's always room for improvement. We're open to improvement. We're open to outside suggestions from qualified groupings to help us improve."
The program entails members of the Justice Department coming to North Charleston, conducting interviews with the mayor, Police Chief Eddie Driggers and members of the police department as well as with those in the community. The group will also review past crime records from the department, then produce a report on their findings as well as a list of recommendations to help the police department improve relations with the community.
"There's a shorter program they can do," Summey said. "We have asked for the three year program because we want a full view of where we are."
"This is a voluntary initiative," Driggers said. "It is about bringing the police and the community together."
Driggers said the goal is to evaluate where the police department is and where the future of law enforcement is headed.
"I'm proud of the men and women that work at the police department. That is not saying what was done in the past was wrong, this is taking a look at where we need to be in the future," Driggers said.
Summey told reporters he spoke with the Justice Department following the April 4, 2015 traffic stop that led to the shooting death of motorist Walter Scott and a murder charge against then-North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager. Summey says he told the justice department he wanted help making the North Charleston Police Department "an even better police department."
Summey says the City of North Charleston worked diligently for months to come to a settlement with Scott's family, and have since been working with the Justice Department.
City Attorney Brady Hair said the Justice Department made an on-site visit in North Charleston in March and met with the Driggers, Summey and members of the police department.
"They told the mayor we had a very good police department, and thought their program could make it a great police department," Hair said.
A repeated message from the press conference was the request for the review was not an admission of serious faults within the department.
"This is not a Patterns and Practice investigation by the civil rights division (of the Justice Department)," Hair said. "That has been asked for by various groups. This is not that at all. This is a voluntary program. It is not a government investigation."
The National Action Network says it welcomes the study, but is still demanding a full blown civil rights investigation of the police department.
"This is not what we wanted. North Charleston has to be held accountable for the lives they destroyed in the past," state NAN president Elder James Johnson said.
Summey said even before the shooting of Scott, Driggers had already begun cutting back on the number of traffic stops in favor of more active community policing, adding that when Driggers came on board, the department was operating based on recommendations from another study that was eight or nine years old at the time.
But he cited examples of police working in communities, including after school programs and fundraisers to help children in the community as proof community outreach efforts are working.
"Community-oriented policing and what they will provide us, that partnership needs to be a holistic view of what it will take to make quality-of-life issues better in the city of North Charleston," Driggers said.
Summey acknowledged government is good at enforcing the law, not creating social change, and called the request for the study a signal to the community that the department is willing to be observed.
"The one challenge I give to the communities is let's stop pointing fingers at who's at fault," Summey said. "We have a great police department. We have a great chief. We have some great men and women who work the streets every day. This should by no means be taken by them that we don't do a good job. We do."
Summey says one of the advantages of the COPS program is that it looks at each community separately, understanding that policies that are effective in some communities might not be effective in others, and vice versa.
Hair said that while the city has requested the Justice Department's assistance, they have not received confirmation the study will happen.