Aggressive Police Tactics in North Charleston, S.C., Led to Drop in Violent Crime, but Some Say Success Has Come at a Cost

Rashard Brown, 30, complained that the police in North Charleston, S.C., had pulled him over twice in two months. (Credit: Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times)
Rashard Brown, 30, complained that the police in North Charleston, S.C., had pulled him over twice in two months. (Credit: Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times)

It was after dark about five years ago, on a downtrodden strip of this city, when Alicia Delesline stopped trusting the police in the place where she had lived her entire life.

Ms. Delesline, 48, was walking to a store when she did something pedestrians do all the time: She suddenly changed her mind, and turned around to go elsewhere. Her movement caught the attention of a police officer, who stopped her and accused her of changing directions because she had seen the authorities farther ahead.

“They just rolled up and bothered me for no reason and searched me,” she said Thursday. “They serve and protect when they feel like serving and protecting. But when they feel like harassing, they do that.”

Ms. Delesline, who is black, is but one person in this city of 104,000 who has experienced the effects of a police campaign that began as an effort to rid North Charleston of its label as one of the country’s most dangerous cities in 2007.

The aggressive tactics by North Charleston’s mostly white police force, including frequent stops of drivers and pedestrians for minor violations and an increased police presence in high-crime, mostly black areas, have led to a decrease in violent crime.

But to many here, the strategy came at a high cost and provides a disturbing context to the police shooting here last weekend that has set off outrage throughout South Carolina and across the country. A white police officer was shown on a bystander’s video shooting and killing an unarmed black man after he fled from a traffic stop for a broken taillight on Saturday. The man, Walter L. Scott, 50, was shot in the back by the officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, who has been charged with murder and whose dismissal was announced by city officials on Wednesday.

Aside from the furor over Mr. Scott’s death, North Charleston has been something of a window onto many of the policing issues playing out nationally.

It saw an era of stepped-up enforcement under former Police Chief Jon R. Zumalt, and an effort to improve relations between the police and residents under the current chief, Eddie Driggers. And it has been a reminder of how much improving policing is a matter of personal decisions, rather than just policies, as the victim’s brother experienced at the crime scene Saturday in a moment of compassion from Chief Driggers.

Black residents, merchants and former residents said police officers have been harassing and racially profiling African-Americans in North Charleston for years, though some of their reports could not be independently verified. They accused officers of assaulting them with Taser stun guns for no reason and of using aggressive tactics after stopping them or pulling them over for minor offenses. Rhonda Smith, who runs a bail bonds agency, spoke of twice writing bonds for black defendants arrested for not having horns on their bicycles.

City officials deny allegations of widespread police misconduct and racial profiling, and they have defended their efforts to lower crime. Mr. Zumalt, who retired in 2013 after leading the police force for more than a decade, drew harsh criticism from some black residents. But in a letter to the mayor, he described his work as a success.

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SOURCE: ALAN BLINDER and MANNY FERNANDEZ
The New York Times