City of North Charleston Police Department: Legitimacy in Every Action

North Charleston Police badgeBetween 2003 and 2005, the city of North Charleston, South Carolina was experiencing the beginning of a housing boom, as the industry soared. However, with more diverse people moving into the neighborhood, new problems were beginning to crop up. Due to the increase of vulnerable illegal immigrants and the hostility between the city’s diverse populations, North Charleston was rated the 7th most violent city in the United States, with 28 reported murders that year and an increase in street robberies, particularly among the Hispanic population. Adding to this trouble, within the community there was a severe lack of trust in law enforcement because of past relationships, as well as a fear of being deported felt by illegal immigrants. The police department was concerned about its effectiveness in handling these issues and realized it needed innovative programs to target these new crime trends and encourage cooperation from the community.

At the time, the city of North Charleston had a population of 100,000, of which 50 percent were African American, 43 percent were White, and 5 percent were Hispanic immigrants. Due to the changing attitude on immigration, the victimization of Hispanic immigrants was growing and they were less likely to report such incidents to the police. There were several misleading and negative stereotypes among the branches of the community, and many of the violent incidents were retaliation crimes. Though North Charleston has seen its share of problems throughout the years, the crime rates in 2006 marked the beginning of a new era in policing.

In 2007, Police Chief Jon Zumalt, with the help of the entire police department, began implementation of several projects aimed to increase mutual trust between police and the community while also decreasing crime rates in the city. One such program, “Police Immersion”, was modeled after a successful approach in Austin, TX. Before the beginning of this program, there had been several complaints that officers, particularly young officers, did not understand other cultures. The goal of this program was to educate cadets about the community in which they served and obligated every hired officer to be immersed within their community directly after completing academy requirements. During this time, officers spent all of their time with the public, attending forums and even going house-to-house to listen to the concerns and compliments of citizens. These officers learned about African American concerns of generational hostility, as well as resources that the police could offer to the homeless. Also, they learned that different cultures have different displays of respect. For instance, some people will not make eye contact with another as a form of respect, or that to some it is disrespectful to pat children on the head. The community responded well to this program, as they felt that they were being seen as stakeholders by the department and someone was actually listening to them. As a result, community complaints fell drastically and more trust was established. Zumalt has even adopted an open-door policy for addressing complaints, and periodically checks behind every officer to ensure that interactions are being conducted with integrity and accountability. As another part of this relationship building, officers go out to local schools once a month to eat lunch with the children and answer questions about the police force. Plus, they involve the community in a more casual way too, by having BBQ’s and raffles, giving officers assigned to the neighborhood a chance to meet and interact with the community. A Teen Academy was established to educate those interested about law enforcement careers, while building relationships with this vulnerable age group. Police are also educating youth through Youth Court where real trials are held with juvenile offenders. Out of 70 cases total last year, only two juveniles reoffended.  

An additional program put in place by the North Charleston Police Department is called “Sell the Stop.” At each traffic stop since the implementation of this program, the officer is required to explain who he/she is, why he/she was in the neighborhood, why the citizen was stopped, and the roles and expectations of the citizen and the officer. By doing this, there is a greater interaction between officers and citizens, thereby increasing mutual trust and educating both parties, promoting “legitimacy in every action,” a motto that the department follows. Within eighteen months of starting this program, 50 percent of traffic stops now result in a warning instead of a citation.

Another approach that North Charleston has taken to educate the public is creating community panels and holding forums. In these panels, police, community brokers, ministers, members of the community, and other stakeholders come together to talk about concerns such as each person’s role within the community with regard to policing, victimization, driving laws, public intoxication, burglaries, and violent crimes. Everyone discusses the expectations they have for each other and confer over potential resources available for providing solutions.

The community is really working together with police to provide these solutions. For instance, in part with Retaliation Protocol, mothers of homicide victims, ministers, and Police Victim Advocates go out to local hospitals to work with families experiencing loss due to homicide. They explain that retaliation is not the answer and provide emotional support for grieving survivors. Together, they explain that revenge will only propel the violence and working with the police is a better alternative. Also, the police have increased the public’s trust by working hard on these types of cases. In one instance, a Hispanic father and daughter were playing soccer outside in broad daylight when a man robbed and fatally shot the father. Officers, along with Hispanic Community Brokers, went door-to-door looking for witnesses and leading evidence. Showing persistence and determination, police were able to solve the case that very day.

Since 2006, North Charleston has had much to celebrate. Within three years, their violent crime rate dropped 33 percent, and their murder rate dropped 66 percent. This is one of the largest murder-rate drops in the country. In addition, 80 percent of murders in the city are solved, which is higher than the national average. Police are more involved with the community than ever before, and therefore, the community is also more involved in policing. The department has worked hard to develop strong relationships and mutual trust through communication and education. Chief Zumalt states that it was not always easy, particularly in the beginning. “Selling the ideas took some time. We had to change the culture of our policing and make the department more transparent,” he said. He believes that the success seen by North Charleston can be achieved by departments of any size and culture. “It’s all about taking the time to communicate with people,” Zumalt explains. The department also had immense support from community partners such as faith-based organizations, neighborhood associations, and city assets like Code, Fire, and Building Enforcement. The changes started with a will, and the community built the way.

-Tawny Spinelli
Special Contributor,
The COPS Office

Back to top

Dispatch Home | Reentry Database Available | Meet the Grants Monitoring Division (GMD) | INTERPOL Washington | Suspicious Activity Initiative Update | Better Serving the Deaf Community | Spotlight on North Charleston PD