To say that citizen and police relations are under strain all across the country feels like an understatement. Just this week, the Department of Justice released a damning report
on the Baltimore Police Department outlining a pattern of civil rights violations and an almost complete abuse of the public’s trust.
Following the investigation, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch wrote, “Our investigation found that Baltimore is a city where the bonds of trust have been broken, and that the Baltimore Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful and unconstitutional conduct, ranging from the use of excessive force to unjustified stops, seizures, and arrests.”
These injustices aren’t just the result of a few bad officers, but symptoms of systemic breakdown running throughout the department. But the problems go beyond just Baltimore. Recent attacks targeting officers throughout the country have law enforcement agencies everywhere on the defensive. Charleston Police headquarters used to keep their front doors unlocked, but after shootings in Dallas and other cities, all visitors now have to be buzzed in by someone at the front desk. It’s a small change, but it shows that the climate has changed.
In an effort to improve relationships with citizens and local law enforcement, the people of Charleston have been participating in the Illumination Project. Funded by the Charleston Police Fund
, this effort has gauged public input over a series of 33 listening sessions and mined those meetings to create a list of strategies to be instituted in the city. A draft plan detailing these changes is currently undergoing citizen review during open sessions held at Greater St. Luke AME Church. Here, citizens are asked to look through the 86 strategies posted around the room and recommend which policies should be put in place over the next year and which will be rolled out over a three-year period.
The first portion of the plan focuses on improving relationships between police and those of different backgrounds and cultures. Recommendations for citizens include enhancing neighborhood watch efforts and sponsoring a re-entry program for those convicted of felonies. For members of law enforcement, the plan includes developing policies to improve interactions with those in the LGBT community, ensuring availability to interpreters, and collaborating with citizens who are disproportionately affected by crime to develop crime reduction strategies. A big part of establishing stronger personal relationships between officers and the communities they police will involve ensuring that individual personnel maintain the same beat.
Plans for achieving respectful, trustful relationships between officers and citizens includes a plan to implement “cite and release programs” for minor violations and increasing community interactions with police during non-emergency situations. Citizens will be asked to offer input on police equipment, procedures, and training, which will be expanded to better focus on the concepts of unconscious bias, cultural differences within groups, and interacting with those with mental illnesses. De-escalation will be promoted as a core principal of police training.
According to the plan, instructional materials will be distributed to citizens advising them on the proper protocols to follow during encounters with police. In addition to working to increase diversity on the police force, the Charleston Police Department will also evaluate practices related to traffic stops and policies will be implemented requiring officers to obtain written consent for all searches not based on reasonable suspicion and probable cause.
Once the Illumination Project’s strategy is finalized, the plan will go before Charleston City Council for approval. Lead project facilitator Margaret Seidler hopes to have everything in place for a first vote in September.