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US attorney on police review: ‘This is how democracy works’

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The Justice Department will scrutinize policies and procedures at the North Charleston Police Department over the next two years and suggest ways for the agency to improve its relationship with the community, a year after a white officer shot unarmed black motorist Walter Scott, U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said Tuesday.

North Charleston becomes the 11th police department in the nation to request such a review since the Justice Department started its Community Oriented Policing Services program, known as COPS, about five years ago. Other cities that requested reviews include Baltimore, Philadelphia and Las Vegas.

“This is how democracy works,” the U.S. attorney said. “There was a tragedy. There was a call from the community and the government heard it.”

The review was requested both by city leaders and citizens following the April 2015 shooting of the 50-year-old Scott.

Michael Slager, the former officer captured on cellphone video firing eight times as Scott ran from a traffic stop, faces a murder charge in state court and his trial is scheduled to begin in October. He pleaded not guilty last week to federal civil rights charges related to the shooting.

Scott was behind $18,000 in his child support payments and family members have said he may have run because he was worried about going to jail.

Chief Noble Wray of COPS said the purpose of the review was to improve the trust between police and the community.

Recommendations could suggest better police training or other procedures, and there will likely be a public forum in the next three weeks where North Charleston residents discuss their concerns, he said. Officers will also be interviewed.

The recommendations will be released to the public in about six months. In about a year, there will be a second report on how well the department has implemented the suggestions. A year after that, Wray said, there will be a final report.

The review could cost as much as $600,000 and will be paid for by the Justice Department.

“It’s an opportunity for us to look at ourselves by having other people look at us,” Mayor Keith Summey said.

North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said his department welcomes the Justice Department review.

“I think this department is up and I think this department is ready for the challenge,” he said, adding any suggestions for change would be implemented immediately, not two years from now.

“We do not wait for change,” he said.

Some in the black community in North Charleston weren’t happy with Driggers’ hiring in 2012 because Summey didn’t appear to consult anyone before tapping Driggers to replace Jon Zumalt, whose used computers to find areas where crime was the worst and then send his officers there for an enforcement blitz. Crime dropped substantially, but black residents said Zumalt’s tactics were harassment, made worse because less than 20 percent of North Charleston’s 325 officers are black in a place where African-Americans make up half the city’s roughly 100,000 people.

State Rep. Justin Bamberg, an attorney representing the Scott family, called the federal review “a big step in ensuring real change takes place.”

Last fall, North Charleston approved a $6.5 million civil settlement with Scott’s family.

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