The Price of Liberty is Eternal Vigilance

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City Council, May 23

Council to consider special auditor for police bias
Is it really necessary?
Marc Knapp

It really has become a circus. For some months now, members and supporters of the Charleston Area Justice Ministries (CAJM) have been speaking out about alleged racial bias of the City’s police force. They want the actions of the police audited. Last night, and for the first time, Council members and the Mayor addressed the speaker’s requests. But it was an inadequate response because it side stepped the truth.

The citizens who spoke last night claimed that Novak Consulting Group, the firm hired to audit the City’s departments had no experience in auditing racial bias. They wanted a special auditor for the Police Department. Four of the five black Council members supported their demands. They claimed that they supported the retention of Novak because they thought its efforts were confined to the study of performance and efficiency. They did not know it included racial bias.

Council member Moody took issue with CAFM speakers and said if they provided specific examples of bias, they could be investigated. It was more than a coincidence that flyers relating to filing a complaint against the police were at the entrance to the Council chamber. The Mayor and Council member Seekings said that Council members were fully informed as to the intentions of the audit, or would have been if they attended the scheduled meetings. There were many tense moments and exchanges amongst Council members and the Mayor. We don’t know where the truth lies, but in a sense, does it matter?

You don’t need an auditor or a special auditor to determine whether there was racial bias. There was, and there had to be. It was part of a “stop and search” policy with the aim of preventing crime. It was based on the premise that a disproportionate percentage of crime was committed by blacks, and in particular, youth. The police used minor offenses to stop and search vehicles with black drivers. Such a policy was in force in New York and Baltimore and was successful in reducing crime. It clearly was used in Charleston. Was it effective, we don’t know? But the fact that the police persisted, suggests it was.

The “stop and search” policy has come under fire in other cities and is clearly under fire in Charleston. We have sympathy with the police force as we believe the “stop and search” policy has helped reduce crime. But a law abiding citizen, of any color, will be understandably incensed to be stopped and his or her vehicle searched on the presumption that a crime is to be committed.

The issue is not going away for the City. The retention of a specialist firm to audit the police department is to be placed on the agenda of the next Council meeting. Like last night’s meeting, we expect there will be plenty of heat. But wouldn’t it be simpler to skip the issue of a special auditor, admit to racial bias, and move on to discuss the “stop and search” policy?

And another observation. The practice of ceding time to other speakers has got out of hand. When there are many speakers, the Mayor limits the length of speeches. Last night there were 30 names on the sign-in sheet. The Mayor limited speeches to 1 minute so as to compress all speeches into the 30 minute Citizens Participation period. There were fewer than 30 speakers last night as many of the CAFM supporters ceded their time to others.

We think that ceding time can be distorting. An organized minority group can easily dominate Citizens Participation by having many “zombies” turn up to cede their time to designated speakers. Of course the group could just as easily dominate Citizens Participation if all members spoke. But by ceding time, they effectively boost their time at the podium as the expense of speakers dealing with other issues.

Those Council members who oppose the exercise of eminent domain will not be suffering heart burn. The owner of the 2.52 acres of land at the junction of Highway 7 and 171 has agreed to sell the land to the City. The price was $3.029 million. Viewers may recall that a meeting last month, Council reluctantly gave the nod to the Mayor to wave the eminent domain threat. Whether this catalyzed the sale, we don’t know but it made most Council members happy. The exception was Council member Lewis.

Council member Lewis did not object to the sale, just the financing. The money was to come from the fund that held the proceeds from the sale of surplus City properties. Further, it had been policy of the City to use this fund to finance affordable housing. The Council member is a strong advocate of affordable housing and was affronted by this diversion. The Mayor indicated funds from the newly created West Ashley TIF district would be used to replenish the draw for the purchase. But it could be some years before the TIF district was generating substantial funds. The Council member was not swayed.

We are not sure what the City will do with the land. It has stopped the construction of a gas station as planned by the previous owner. As the site was sort of an entrance to West Ashley, the Mayor, Council and citizens thought a gas station was not appropriate. The Mayor talked about reconfiguring the highways to make both safer for cars and pedestrians. There is also talk of a community building and a park.