After an officer shot Walter Scott to death in 2015, the North Charleston Police Department hired more Black officers and cut down on traffic stops.
Audra D.S. Burch spent several weeks reporting on policing in North Charleston, S.C, and visited the city to talk to officers and residents.
March 17, 2023Updated 4:02 p.m. ET
When Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., during a routine traffic stop, the city spun into what is now predictable turmoil: Video of the horrific shooting was everywhere. There were protests, accusations of racist and aggressive policing, demands for reform, and distraught family members speaking out, often flanked by civil rights leaders.
That was almost eight years ago. Since then, the police officer who shot Mr. Scott has been convicted on a federal civil rights charge and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The city paid a $6.5 million settlement to Mr. Scott’s family. The 355-member police force has become significantly more diverse, with 69 Black officers hired since 2018. The force is now led by its first African American chief, who invites Mr. Scott’s brother to talk to new recruits.
And yet, Mr. Scott’s death still casts a long shadow over North Charleston, the state’s third-largest city with a population of about 117,000 and nearly equal numbers of Black and white residents. Next week, the police chief will attend a major public gathering to answer lingering questions about racial disparities in policing.
“It was hard — it still is hard,” said Chief Reggie Burgess, who began his career as a patrolman in 1989 and is now considering running for mayor. “I am trying to change the perception of the North Charleston Police Department, and part of that is getting my force to see the humanity in our community and to imagine what it might feel like for a community member to be mistreated.”
North Charleston offers a view into the complex, slow and often bumpy journey forward after such a crisis, particularly when race plays a role — the kind of crisis that continues to engulf police departments and communities, years after the murder of George Floyd. The recent brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis plunged the country again into a conversation about policing and race, and forced another American city to confront a broken police-community relationship that will probably take years to mend.
“I looked at the Nichols video and knew what Memphis would be facing,” said Lt. Tireka Wright, a 16-year member of the North Charleston Police. “We went down this road after the Scott shooting. And we know how long that road is.”
In North Charleston, as the department worked to chip away at public skepticism and shift its policing strategies, an audit completed in 2021 confirmed what some residents believed — that there were racial disparities in many police interactions with the community, including traffic stops, arrests and use of force. Since then, the department has taken steps to address the audit findings, and residents said they have sensed some improvements.
The report, which analyzed department data, policies and training, along with interviews with police personnel and community members, raised questions about oversight. For years, activists have called for the creation of a civilian oversight board to address citizens’ complaints against police officers in a community that sometimes still feels mistreated.
The police killings of Mr. Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignited a social movement, but the results so far have been a mixed bag. Many American police departments have cut budgets, experimented with methods and made hiring more diverse officers a priority. Governments across the country have approved more than 140 new policing measures, many focused on limiting use of force, banning chokeholds, requiring de-escalation and holding officers accountable. Other municipalities, though, have increased their budgets and abandoned earlier promises of change.
The aftermath of Walter Scott’s death offers insights into how departments work to rebound after a police killing. Chief Burgess said the work requires juggling competing demands: balancing honesty about what went wrong with lifting the morale of officers, while moving ahead with changes to address whatever aspects of policing had gone wrong. In this case, as in many others, it was a traffic stop that led to Mr. Scott’s death.
The department emphasized community policing, partly to help repair public perception — though the audit found that some officers didn’t understand or embrace the concept. The strategy included making officers more visible beyond responding to crimes. Officers were also sent to racial equity and anti-bias training.
Though some police officers felt a rush to reform, some community activists say that change has been sluggish and uneven.
“We have the police data that tells us what we need to work on, and much of that simply has not happened,” said Suzanne Hardie, a member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a social justice network of faith-based congregations. “It took us five years just to get the audit.”
Ms. Hardie said some of the police efforts seemed superficial, and that her organization wanted a detailed analysis of the racial-disparity data from the last three years and for the police department to share what its next steps would be to address the problem.
The group, which includes about 40 member congregations, also wants to see the complaint process improved. It plans to hold a public discussion with Chief Burgess about the audit on Monday, as part of an annual event to discuss social issues.
In North Charleston, tensions between residents and the police exploded into public view on the morning of April 4, 2015, when Officer Michael Slager stopped Mr. Scott, 50, over a broken taillight. Their encounter quickly escalated, and the two men struggled. Mr. Slager fired his handgun as Mr. Scott fled.
The fatal shooting, along with a cellphone video that poked holes in the officer’s initial account, undermined an already fraught relationship between Black residents and law enforcement. It also renewed questions about the racial makeup of a department that was overwhelmingly white.
For Black officers on the force, the moment was especially fraught. It chilled some friendships, revealing the delicate balance between their professional and personal identities.
“I call the period after Walter Scott’s death ground zero,” said Chief Burgess, 57, who was serving as assistant chief when Mr. Scott was killed.
“Even in my church community, the treatment was a little different,” Chief Burgess recalled recently. “I was used to these big hugs from the elders of the church on Sundays. That changed to them shaking my hands. There was distance. They weren’t mad at me personally, but I am part of the institution.”
After Mr. Scott’s death, the state passed a law requiring all law enforcement officers in South Carolina to be outfitted with body cameras, but release of the footage was left to the police agency’s discretion. Activists and community groups in North Charleston wanted a civilian oversight board with subpoena powers to be established. The city created an advisory commission, one that could make recommendations but not impose discipline. Activists also demanded a racial-bias study of the police department.
“For the most part, our demands were ignored or dismissed,” said Thomas Dixon, a church pastor and community activist. “But I have to say, years later, things have improved. I used to get calls all the time about police mistreatment. That doesn’t happen very often anymore.”
Chief Burgess was promoted to lead the department in 2018, three years after the shooting, and inherited a force that had been accused of excessive force and prejudiced policing. “The larger community had lost faith in us,” he said, “and within the department, the majority of the officers were frustrated and angry.”
He started his tenure by going on ride-alongs with his officers to connect with people in the city’s neighborhoods. Concluding that he needed a more diverse force to better reflect the city’s demographics, Chief Burgess hired nearly 100 Black or Hispanic officers in four years.
And he worked to rein in the kinds of low-level traffic stops that led to Mr. Scott’s fatal encounter, reducing their number to 12,919 in 2022 from 18,719 in 2018. He said officers must now justify each stop to a supervisor and record it with a body camera.
Saturation patrols, in which groups of officers stay in a particular neighborhood for weeks or months to investigate a violent crime — were mostly eliminated, he said, because the tactic unfairly “put a whole net over the community — we were catching the bad people, but the good people were also swept up.”
In 2020, the city commissioned the audit, which was conducted by a Virginia-based consulting firm. It was spurred in part by the widespread social justice protests that summer.
In audit interviews, people in some Black and Hispanic neighborhoods said they felt they were too aggressively policed. The audit found that from 2016 to 2020, about 63 percent of the force’s arrests were of Black residents, though they made up just 47 percent of the city’s population. Similarly, 67 percent of police use-of-force incidents in that period involved Black people, and only 21 percent involved white people, who accounted for 45 percent of the population.
Community members expressed frustration with the city’s failure to create a civilian oversight board, which they viewed as a first step toward better police accountability and transparency.
The audit concluded that “racial disparities are present in many” of the department’s “interactions with the community,” and pointed to “potential systemic, organizational or individual bias.”
Officers said in interviews for the audit that relations with the public had grown stronger in recent years, though they knew some tensions lingered. Residents and officers both felt that the police were making more effort to connect with the public. And the audit found that residents had confidence in Chief Burgess.
Chief Burgess acknowledged many of the audit’s findings, and said it would take time for officers to unlearn practices that can escalate an encounter. But he pushed back on the statistics about racial disparities in arrests, saying the police had to go where the crimes were, regardless of demographics.
Pastor Dixon said the department had made progress, but still faced issues, including an increase in gun violence.
“The killing of Walter Scott galvanized the community,” he said. “But the needle didn’t move overnight, and we still have a few officers that believe in law-and-order policing,” he said, referring to aggressive police tactics. “They have to be deprogrammed.”
Chief Burgess said he has tried to change new officers’ thinking by having Anthony Scott, Walter Scott’s brother, speak to them.
“It took me a long time to get to the point where I wanted to help,” Mr. Scott said. “This was eating me away and I had to forgive. I never want a family to go through what mine did. I finally decided to try to be part of helping to change the police department.”