Justice Department reviews South Carolina city's police after driver's shooting

Reuters News
Posted: May 17, 2016 12:32 PM

By Harriet McLeod

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department, aiming to reduce tension between black residents and a mostly white police force, on Tuesday launched a review of the police department in the South Carolina city where a white officer fatally shot an unarmed black motorist in the back a year ago.

The mayor and police chief in North Charleston requested the independent, comprehensive assessment by the department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and said they welcomed the chance to improve relations between the police force and local community.

"We think we have a good police department," Mayor Keith Summey told reporters. "This helps you make the changes you need to make a great police department."

Racial tensions linger in the city where patrolman Michael Slager killed Walter Scott, 50, on April 4, 2015, firing eight times at Scott's back as he fled a traffic stop for a broken tail light.

Slager was charged in state court with murder after cell phone video of the shooting, taken by a bystander, surfaced. Black residents have said they continue to be harassed by law enforcement.

Civil rights groups have asked the Justice Department to investigate whether city police practices have violated residents' constitutional rights. That separate probe is still needed, said Edward Bryant III, president of the North Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The COPS review "doesn't have any teeth in it," Bryant said.

The COPS Office will meet with law enforcement and the community before issuing a public report in six to eight months with its findings of gaps or deficiencies in the department and specific recommendations to fix them, said Noble Wray, chief of the COPS Office's Policing Practices and Accountability Initiative.

Subsequent reports will assess the police department's progress in implementing the proposed reforms, Wray added.

Federal officials emphasized the transparent nature of the process, which will take about two years.

"This is to establish trust," Wray said. "Although this is a voluntary process, it is the eyes of the community that keeps this an accountable process."

North Charleston is the 11th U.S. city to take part in the program offered by the COPS Office, officials said. Others include Baltimore, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Fayetteville, North Carolina.

The Justice Department last week announced an indictment against Slager on federal charges, including a civil rights offense that accused him of excessive force in Scott's shooting. Slager has said he acted in self-defense.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod, writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Alan Crosby and Dan Grebler)