Transparency, Whiteness, and the Unspeakable

In order to explain why the city of Charleston needs an external audit of its police department, I first need to ask a question. Why is it so hard, for many of us, to say that any police officers ever did anything wrong? We’re willing to criticize presidents and doctors and teachers if we believe they’ve made mistakes. But when a police officer, for example, kills an unarmed citizen, it’s hard to get a conviction. The first trial for the man who killed Walter Scott ended in a hung jury, because they couldn’t agree on whether the police officer was just doing his job or committing a crime.  scott shootingThe defendant testified that, after choosing to pull Scott over for a traffic violation, he “was so scared” that he had to shoot him. Eight times.  To some jurors, this officer was just doing what he was supposed to do: firing repeatedly as Scott ran farther and farther away. The officer had stopped Scott’s car as a normal part of his day, since he was expected to stop at least three people per shift. It’s your job to drive around looking for a reason to stop cars, because then you get a chance to search for drugs or guns. Standard police work. If the person you stop has no drugs, but gets upset and runs away, well, he’s resisting arrest and you have to stop him. Immediately. Dead in his tracks. After the ambulance carried Scott’s body away, the officer’s supervisor told him to take the day off.  A year and a half later, the jury could not agree on whether a crime had been committed. A week ago, though, this officer admitted to federal prosecutors that in shooting Scott, he knowingly violated Scott’s civil rights. Two years later, he was finally able to say it.

Usually, of course, when police officers make these kinds of traffic stops, nobody has to call an ambulance or an undertaker. From 2011 to 2015, according to data posted by the SC Department of Public Safety, there were over 130,000 such stops in North Charleston and 127,000 in Charleston. (Columbia, a city of a similar size, stopped 33,000 people during this time period.) In most of these stops, nobody got killed, right?  The fact that African Americans are stopped twice as often as whites should not be a cause for concern. The fact that many, many black members of CAJM congregations have shared stories of being stopped and treated as suspects should not trouble anyone who respects the police. As citizens—especially as white citizens–we’re not supposed to find fault with the officers who stop them, the supervisors who review their activity, the training they receive, the policing tactics of their department. Surely the police have their reasons for spending so many hours intimidating the black citizens they stop, doing unsolicited motor vehicle inspections, putting the driver’s information on field contact cards. Surely that kind of police activity builds trust and makes this a great city.

An interracial, interfaith organization known as CAJM (Charleston Area Justice Ministry) thinks otherwise. I’m proud to be part of an organization that thinks this kind of racial discrimination is unacceptable. We’re asking the city to hire a qualified firm to do an audit of traffic stops, citations, and arrests by Charleston police. We want information on who’s been stopped–age, gender, race, ethnicity—and when, where, why, and what happened afterwards. (Was there a search? Was a citation written? Were weapons drawn? Did the officer call for backup after stopping a black woman for a faulty taillight, as happened to Charleston attorney and CAJM member Mavis Huger as she left her church one evening?) Let’s get the facts out there. Maybe we’ll find that these stops were discriminatory in the past, but the discriminatory behavior has now decreased—North Charleston has actually made progress in reducing the racial disparity of their stops in the past year. Maybe the police have already figured out ways to be proactive and fight crime without making black citizens afraid of them. If so, we’d like everyone to see that evidence.

We’re not exactly storming the Bastille with this request, and some members of City Council have been supportive.  Five attended our CAJM Nehemiah Action Assembly last month and agreed to our request for sharing arrest and stop data, and four (Dudley Gregorie, James Lewis, Robert Mitchell, Keith Waring)  agreed to our request for an audit by a firm qualified to investigate racial bias. The fifth Council member, Rodney Williams, said he preferred to wait until after a city-wide audit has been completed. CAJM’s contention is that the firm the city hired isn’t qualified to do an audit for racial bias, since it’s never done one before.

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Attendees begin to gather at 2017 Nehemiah Action. Seats in front are marked for all invited public officials.

 

When I said it’s hard for us to talk about the police, I meant it’s mostly hard for white people. Many who are reluctant to criticize police officers are people who haven’t been intimidated by police, and most people in this category are white. None of our white city officials (Mayor Tecklenburg, William Moody, Michael Seekings, Peter Shahid, Marvin Wager, Gary White, and Kathleen Wilson) chose to come to our Nehemiah Action Assembly, so now we’re coming to them. At the May 9 City Council meeting, CAJM people will stand to show support while a few of us speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, just as we did two weeks ago.

In 2015, before our mayor was elected, he spoke out against racial discrimination, acknowledged the power of systemic racism, even attended CAJM events and said he supported our work. That’s changed. This year he’s been dismissive and defensive when discussing CAJM’s concerns about the police department. I’m just guessing here: maybe he hasn’t been stopped or intimidated by the police?  Perhaps he thinks this is not due to his whiteness, but to his law-abiding behavior. Perhaps he thinks that citizens’ stories of police harassment and citizens’ requests for accountability are irrelevant to the work of the City Council.  I don’t know exactly what he thinks, of course. I do know that at the last City Council meeting, the mayor tried to limit the amount of time one CAJM member would speak. Citizens who sign up for speaking time are allowed to cede their time to another speaker, if they’re both present, and someone had already done that for Suzanne Hardie before her turn came, but when she approached the microphone, the mayor said she only had one minute. After she’d spoken for a minute, Councilman Keith Waring suggested to the mayor “that we not muffle these people.” Then the mayor agreed that she could continue speaking.

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Portrait of John C. Calhoun glowers at CAJM member waiting to speak at City Council meeting

This is all on the video of the April 25 meeting, starting at about 108 minutes, if you feel like watching it. Black CAJM members talked of being stopped and fined for highly dubious reasons. A white and black CAJM member used a minute apiece to recount the suspicious circumstances of the death of Denzel Curnel, wearing a hoodie while walking through his neighborhood (the surveillance video is missing the 3 minutes in which he was captured by a police officer and then allegedly shot himself with his right hand, though he was left-handed). White CAJM members explained why they, as white citizens, believed we should investigate racial bias in the city’s policing. Suzanne Hardie asked why none of the white council members attended CAJM’s Nehemiah Action.  I’m not sure what they thought about that. Suzanne stated that her faith tradition taught her to stand with those who were oppressed. “Do your sacred texts call you to maintain the status quo of racial injustice?” she asked. I don’t know what impression our comments left upon any of the council members. On the video, though, you can view some of the white council members, later in the evening, speaking enthusiastically about why the city should build a world-class natatorium. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It’s hard for white people to talk about racial discrimination without getting defensive and dismissive. Last week the mayor complained about CAJM’s efforts when speaking to a group of clergy, the North Charleston Interdenominational Ministers Alliance.  (This May 3rd talk was livestreamed on Facebook for a few days, but by May 8th it was no longer available. I took notes, though, so I can catch you up.) In his view, allegations of racial discrimation by the police are way overstated. “If there’s a lot of mistreatment out there, people aren’t reporting it,” the mayor said, extending his hands in a genially helpless gesture, not mentioning any of the incidents that CAJM members had described to the City Council on multiple occasions.  “I believe we’re building trust and trying to do the right thing,” the mayor said. “Most people just don’t even know what we are doing. . . I think we’re doing a lot and people don’t know about it.” He also said that anyone with a complaint about the police should let him know and he’d get to the bottom of it. For example, he’d recently been able to get an officer into a room with a complaining citizen, enabling the two to hear each other’s perspective, and that was very helpful for the officer, he said.

Although the mayor strikes me as a fundamentally decent human being, I can’t conceive of his approach as an efficient or even-handed way to promote professionalism in a police force with over 450 officers. It sounds like wishful thinking: I’m an honorable man; nobody should hesitate to come to me, the great and powerful Oz. Through my wise benevolence, any citizen’s concerns will be properly addressed, in ways that nobody else needs to know about, and harmony will reign once more. “I believe we’re building trust and trying to do the right thing.”

The mayor also insisted that he was already doing everything that CAJM asked him to do last year. The data we wanted was already posted online, he said, because he was committed to transparency. This made me curious. I’ve now spent some time studying the new “Charleston Police Data Initiative” web page the mayor was talking about. After a few hours struggling to interpret what I found, I can’t say I agree with his assertion that the city is now being transparent in sharing its policing data.

The Data Initiative does not actually have information on stops that CAJM has been asking for.  You can click on a table of arrests since 2009, and on the past three months’ statistics on police use of weapons or physical force. You can open up twelve weekly reports of crimes in 2017.  There’s also data on “Calls for Service and Officer Initiated Calls.” (Sidebar: this data starts in 2009 but does not include data from 2014-15. 2014 was when Denzel Curnel died after being tackled by a police officer.) And there’s a list of “Field Contacts” the police have recorded since 2009. The Post and Courier recently questioned what police departments are doing with the information they collect in these field contacts. The article quoted Police Chief Greg Mullen explaining that field interviews helped them solve crimes. “I don’t want to create an atmosphere where people are worried that there is this big surveillance arm out there.” But all this data is less than transparent. Screenshot 2017-05-07 14.49.00The “Field Contacts” data doesn’t exactly explain why police made these contacts. “OTHR” is the most common reason provided.

The website doesn’t tell us what prompted these field contacts, but we do know the race of the people who are being interviewed. As of 2010, about 25% of Charleston’s citizens were black, but close to half of the “Field Contacts” were black.Screenshot 2017-05-07 14.49.30

Meanwhile, where is the transparently-presented data, or any data, on traffic stops, something CAJM has been asking for since 2016? You can get a start on CPD’s “Information and Reports” web page, where you can click on a report for each quarter in 2016 and the first quarter in 2017.  Using my phone calculator to add up the numbers for 2016, I found that the number of traffic stops that year, 28683, was over twice the number of field contacts, 13125. But there’s no information on race, gender, result of stop, etc.

CPD1

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(Sidebar: the fourth quarter of 2016 reported one complaint about excessive force, marked “Disposition Pending.” No further information was reported in the first quarter of 2017. Perhaps this was the complaint that got resolved by officer and citizen listening to one another in the mayor’s office?)

As for CAJM’s request for an audit by a qualified firm, the mayor says he’s confident the firm the city hired to audit all city departments will find out if there is any racial bias in policing. In January the city chose two firms to complete the various parts of this large audit. Neither firm has expertise in examining racial bias by police; one has expertise in municipal organizational efficiency and the other in storm water drainage. When speaking on May 3, the mayor, sounding rather aggrieved, also told his audience that he could not hire the firm that CAJM had suggested, because the city couldn’t hire anyone who didn’t respond to their RFP.  Hearing this, I searched the city website for a good while until I found RFP 16-PO27C. It calls for a firm to audit all the city’s departments in order “to help guide continuous improvement, analytics, and operational analysis citywide.” The RFP also includes a stipulation, probably boilerplate, that the city may “cancel in part or in its entirety this Solicitation if it is in the best interest of the City to do so. The City shall be the sole judge as to whether proposals submitted meet all requirements contained in this solicitation.” So the city could have chosen to redo its RFP–posted in Sept 2016, 5 months after the 2016 Nehemiah Action–if it had decided it should advertise for a firm with more expertise in racial bias. That’s something CAJM members asked the mayor to do last November.

At our Assembly in April, Rodney Williams said he wanted to wait to see what this audit revealed before spending taxpayers’ money on another one. And the mayor, taking questions at his appearance on May 3, said that the audit hasn’t started yet.  So the city will spend over 250,000, and the firm they’ll pay to audit for racial bias has never done that before. As far as I can tell, there’s no plan afoot to get the audit done anytime soon, much less to take action in response to the audit. The city will let things run along the same old way for the foreseeable future.

I feel that my tax dollars may have been squandered.

Am I being too hard on our mayor and the white city council members who don’t seem concerned about this issue? Believe me, I’m not enjoying it. I would be awfully pleased if the mayor summoned the wherewithal to find common cause with CAJM, rather than just avoiding us, discouraging us from participating in public meetings, telling us that he’s uncomfortable meeting with us. “They don’t know what I’m going to do, they just go ahead and criticize me,” he said on May 3. Perhaps then, sir, you could let us know what you’re going to do? If I’m misreading what’s on the website, if the city has actually already provided exactly the data that this group of 2000+ citizens have asked for, why not make that clear to us? Why not be sure the data is easy to access, why not celebrate the way the city is doing what citizens have asked, instead of suggesting that we’re a bunch of uninformed ingrates? You could say something like this, even if you don’t mean it: Thank you, Charleston Area Justice Ministry, for sharing your concern and your research on such an important issue. In my campaign I said I would be guided by my concern for race, equity, and social justice. We look forward to continuing to work with you to make Charleston an even greater city.

Even there, in the lines I just imagined for the mayor, I think I’m letting him off pretty easily. I didn’t ask him to say out loud that racism could really and for sure be a problem, right here, right now.

Some things are hard for us to say if we want to be cheerful, as the mayor clearly prefers to be. Me, too! I feel that! Some things are hard to acknowledge if we want to feel proud of ourselves and our community. So we’re not supposed to say our community is looking the other way while bad things happen. We’re not supposed to say that police officers may have made very bad choices—or perhaps that they’ve been trained to make bad choices, or been demoralized when other officers have been promoted after making those choices.

A group holds hands and prays outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston

We don’t like thinking that some citizens get an unfair deal. We’ve gotten along pretty well ourselves, and it’s troubling to think that our lives might not be merely the product of our own industry and talents. We deserve the life we’ve built, right?

Many of us white people hold none of these truths to be self-evident: that some police officers do not act honorably or lawfully. That poverty is not something most people will ever climb out of. That some factors are even more important to our lives than hard work or natural ability or determination. That among these are property, access to power, and whiteness.

Whiteness is something we did not ask for, something we did not bestow upon ourselves at birth. We didn’t consciously shove our way to the front of the line and demand a lopsided share of power or inherited social capital. We didn’t ask to be born, or to be born to a family that owned a house or two, to be related to people who were executives or college graduates or who owned houses. We didn’t ask to be born into the invisible race, the race that matters so much that we don’t ever have to mention it. If you mention someone’s race, that means their race has made them lesser-than, or their parents and grandparents. And if you don’t believe that your grandparents’ lives had an impact on where you are today, you are definitely surrounded by an opaque fog, a cloud of invisible and light-blocking whiteness. Privilege insulates, makes us think we’re just breathing in and out, but all the while we’re getting space, breathing room, choices that others don’t get.

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Behind City Council members, some of the many CAJM attendees at the 4.25 meeting stand as Rev. Heyward speaks

You’ve probably not reading this, fellow white people who supposedly represent me on City Council. Paying no attention to your whiteness is one of its prerogatives. Your whiteness does not make you a racist. But ignoring your whiteness, trying to keep whiteness invisible: that’s part of systemic racism. It doesn’t have to be intentional to be harmful.

This is painful, even for the privileged. And what can one person do about systemic inequities? You might fall back on that question, absolving yourself of individual responsibility for this big sprawling problem. I, for one, often depend on that rationalization at the end of another day: I didn’t start it, I can’t change much of it, let’s see what’s on Netflix tonight. We all must make our peace, our accommodation, with the smallness of what we’ve done to make things better for someone besides ourselves.

I feel you there, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. You’re a public servant. You should be farther-seeing than the average citizen. You should seek policies that promote a more just community.

You can use your white privilege to speak words that most white people don’t want spoken. When you speak, other white elected officials may listen. When you vote for an independent police audit, you allow our beloved city to take one step closer to telling the truth.

Don’t worry—even after you have spoken its name, roughly 99.99% of your white privilege will remain intact. But you may start looking for better ways to use it.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.  John 8:32

Comments

  1. Raphael M. Haller says:

    Congratulations! By far the best description of problems with Charleston’s mayor, police and white council members I’ve seen.
    Ralph Haller, Mt. Pleasant

    Like

  2. Anne Packer says:

    Wow. This is a powerful article. Thanks for posting and illuminating the situation — it applies in so many places beyond Charleston.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. […] but no white elected officials showed up. (Optics: less than ideal.) So now CAJM members have begun attending City Council meetings and making our case to all the [white] elected officials who had not attended our Assembly. After […]

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