Today, on the heels of the South Carolina State Legislature’s vote to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), in partnership with the North Charleston Branch of the NAACP and over two dozen South Carolina leaders, submitted a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the Department of Justice to open an investigation of the North Charleston Police Department to uncover any pattern or practice of racially discriminatory policing. It also asked the Justice Department to open a criminal civil rights investigation into former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager for the April 4, 2015 shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man.
“While we are pleased that the Confederate flag has come down, we feel now, more than ever, that we must push for real structural change,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF, the nation’s leading civil rights and racial justice law firm. “The flag was a symbol of insensitivity to the concerns of African-American residents in South Carolina. But, no real reconciliation can happen without systemic, institutional changes that will result in the fair treatment of all residents. The killing of Walter Scott must be understood in the context of police problems and brutality in North Charleston.”
The letter to Attorney General Lynch comes in the wake of a tide of violence against African-American residents, including the June 17, 2015 massacre of nine members of Charleston’s historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church by a self-proclaimed white supremacist. These murders serve as a stark reminder that the struggle to eliminate racial violence and intimidation nationwide, particularly by police, continues.
The letter details numerous examples of alleged use of excessive or lethal force by North Charleston police officers over the past 15 years, including: a 2011 incident involving officers who allegedly handcuffed Sheldon Williams, an African-American man, and stomped on his face multiple times causing facial fractures; and, a 2000 incident during which officers shot and killed Edward Snowden, an African-American man, who was attacked by four white men.
“These acts of police violence against African-American residents of North Charleston are not isolated incidents,” said Monique Dixon, Senior Policy Counsel at LDF. “The recent videotaped police killing of Walter Scott, while shocking, occurred within a seemingly normalized culture of racially-biased policing and excessive use of force that has long plagued North Charleston.”
The letter also offers evidence of racial discrimination in traffic stops conducted by officers of the North Charleston Police Department. According to data collected by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, since January 2011, 65% of all drivers stopped, but not ticketed or arrested by police were African-American persons, while 33% of were white individuals. African-American residents make up 47% of the population of North Charleston, and white residents make up 42% of the population.
“North Charleston police officers pull over African-American drivers all of the time for the slightest infractions, such as failing to use a turn signal or having a busted taillight,” said Edward Bryant, President of the North Charleston, South Carolina Branch of the NAACP. “These discriminatory stops must end.”
“It’s past time to take a deeper look at how racial bias has permeated our institutions in South Carolina,” said Victoria Middleton, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Longstanding complaints from the community, capped by Walter Scott’s tragic death, raise questions that can’t be brushed aside.”
Finally, the letter asked Attorney General Lynch to use her authority to open a criminal civil rights investigation of former police officer Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott five times in the back as he ran away, and later provided an account of the shooting that contradicted videotaped footage of the incident.
“Walter Scott’s family is pleased that local authorities have charged former officer Michael Slager with murder, and has faith in the Solicitor’s office to prosecute him fully,” said L. Chris Stewart and Justin Bamberg, attorneys for the Scott family. “But the brazen shooting of Walter Scott and the North Charleston Police Department’s long history of potential racial profiling, and inadequate supervision of officers, are deserving of federal investigations. Such investigations would send a clear message to the North Charleston Police Department, and any other responsible City officials, that the federal government will not tolerate ongoing racially-motivated policing, even when excused as attempting to decrease crime, and will prosecute acts of lethal force by officers against civilians and protect the rights of all citizens.”
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The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has long worked to build a more equitable South Carolina. It represented students from Clarendon County, South Carolina, who fought for desegregated schools in Briggs v. Elliot, which was among the cases that led to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. Most recently, in 2012, LDF opposed South Carolina’s discriminatory voter identification law in the case of South Carolina v. United States. Although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to racial justice, LDF has been a completely separate organization since 1957. Please refer to it in media attributions as the “NAACP Legal Defense Fund” or “LDF”.