When news first broke that a black man had been fatally shot by a white police officer on Saturday, many here doubted the official version of events but expressed little hope that those concerns would be heard despite a state investigation that began immediately after the shooting.
But then came video evidence showing a white police officer shooting at that man, Walter L. Scott, eight times as he ran away, handcuffing him behind his back as he lay motionless on the ground and, for several crucial moments, failing to provide even basic first aid.
For many in a city that has long had a troubled relationship between the police and black residents, it was proof not just of a possible crime but of a pattern of abuse — a concern that mirrors many of the issues over policing that have played out nationally.
As in other parts of the nation, the distrust here was rooted in police tactics put in place roughly a decade ago to combat rising violence that have remained in force as crime has ebbed.
Never miss a local story.
After a spike in violent crime that began in 2003, when North Charleston was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the nation, officials enacted policies to beef up the police presence in high-crime, largely black areas. They included regular stops of drivers for minor violations, widespread stops of pedestrians and a conspicuous police presence in black communities.
Violent crime fell, but residents complained that it came at a high cost. Many blacks said they felt harassed, profiled and disrespected. And with each police shooting, that relationship grew worse.
On Wednesday, dozens of people gathered outside City Hall in North Charleston to protest what they said was a persistent abuse of power by the police.
Clutching signs with slogans like “The whole world is watching” and “Back turned, don’t shoot,” protesters talked about Scott’s death and deeper problems in the relationship between the police and the people they are meant to serve.
“This has been a reality that has been in the North Charleston Police Department for many, many years,” said one demonstrator, Muhiyidin Moye. “It just so happens we got a video.”
Demonstrator after demonstrator stepped to the microphones to share their accounts of what they said was systemic racism. Some spoke of groundless searches, while others complained about arrests for nonviolent offenses.
The protest was vocal but peaceful. A few law enforcement officials, dressed in plain clothes, stood nearby, and Sheriff Al Cannon of Charleston County walked through the crowd at one point.
The frustrations have been building for years, although recently, amid the national debate over police tactics that followed fatal police encounters in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island, the Police Department here has made a greater effort to reach out to residents, officials said Wednesday.
At a news conference later in the day, Mayor R. Keith Summey said the police chief had been working to improve relations with residents since he took office two years ago and would expand those efforts.
Summey was also clearly seeking to calm emotions sparked by the video.
“We will continue to look at ways to enhance the services we provide to our citizens,” he said. “I mean all of our citizens.”
Chief Eddie Driggers echoed those comments.
“I have been praying for peace,” he said. “Peace for the family and peace for this community.”
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent.
Two decades ago, the murder rates in North Charleston started to climb, and by 2006 and 2007 they had reached record levels, making it one of the country’s most dangerous communities.
In response, the Police Department instituted a series of reforms. Strict enforcement was encouraged. More people were stopped, more people were frisked and more fines were issued.
By 2011, in an effort to project force in troubled neighborhoods, the number of traffic stops citywide reached 64,000, an increase of about 3,000 from a decade earlier, according to local news media reports.
At the same time, resentment built up.
The rift between the police and residents went beyond race, some said, citing the case of Denzel Curnell.
Curnell, 19 and black, was stopped on the night of June 20, 2014, by an officer who noticed that he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt despite the heat.
The officer, Jamal Medlin, who is black, told Curnell to pull his hand out of his pocket. When he refused, the two engaged in a struggle.
An investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division found that Medlin drew his service pistol and pointed it at Curnell.
At some point, according to the officer’s account, while Curnell was lying facedown on the asphalt, Curnell pulled a revolver he was carrying out of his pocket and shot himself in the head.
His death was ruled a suicide.
But his lawyer at the time said there were many unanswered questions.
“The alternative theory could very well be that the officer, in an unconstitutional, impermissible manner, stopped this fellow, engaged in a physical confrontation with him — not once but twice, according to his own testimony — then who’s to say that the officer did not engage in some physical force that resulted in an accidental shooting?” said the lawyer, Andy Savage.
Those kinds of nagging doubts — underscoring a deep mistrust between the police and the people in North Charleston — only added power to the video that captured the shooting of Walter Scott, 50, on Saturday.
For many, it confirmed suspicions that the police version of events could not be trusted.
The initial police report filed in the shooting is directly contradicted by what is shown in the video, which appears to show that Scott posed no threat to the officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, when he was shot.
While the video was shocking, many said it was not altogether surprising.
Aurvella Henry, who lives in nearby West Ashley, said North Charleston had a particular reputation for police harassment.
“North Charleston is a very rough place to be.”
Officer is fired
Michael Thomas Slager, the white South Carolina police officer who said he killed Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man, in self-defense, has been fired, according to Mayor Keith Summey.
The mayor also announced Wednesday that he had ordered body cameras to be worn by every officer on the force in North Charleston.
Protests began within hours of the murder charge against Slager.
The city will continue to pay for Slager’s health insurance because his wife is eight months pregnant, said Summey, who called the incident a tragedy for two families.
| The Associated Press