Eric Frazier

How I remember North Charleston

Asia Cromwell protests the killing of Walter Scott.
Asia Cromwell protests the killing of Walter Scott. AP

Journalists from around the country have converged on North Charleston, S.C., hoping to decipher what happened in the Walter Scott shooting and what it means for the deepening national discussion about policing and race.

My guess is that as they comb through crime data and probe race relations in North Charleston, they will find the same thing they’d find in any city marked by poor black inner-city neighborhoods and mostly white patrol officers.

Which is to say, they’ll find tension. A lot of it. Which is to say, the same thing they’d find in many of their own cities.

I went to college in Charleston, and my first job was as night police reporter for the Charleston News and Courier (now the Post and Courier), covering crime in Charleston, North Charleston and surrounding towns.

The North Charleston I remember from the late 1980s was a place where prostitutes congregated not far from the now-closed Naval Base. Where Rivers Avenue, Dorchester Road and other major highways sported mile after glowing neon mile of pawn shops, tattoo parlors, cheap motels and strip clubs.

In short, the municipal equivalent of the poor relations next door to Charleston, with its elegant mansions and carefully-manicured charm.

If many North Charleston neighborhoods were known to be tough, the cops were known to be tougher. Recent comments from some residents suggest not much has changed.

Arthur Downard, a former Long Island resident who now calls North Charleston home, said its white male officers have an “attitude.”

“The ladies are nice, and the black guys are awesome,” Downard told the The (Columbia) State newspaper. “But the white go-getters, they aren’t piss and vinegar, they are piss and gasoline.”

North Charleston has struggled to get officers to live anywhere in the city, much less the poor neighborhoods. Former North Charleston Mayor John Bourne was said to have lost his bid for a sixth term in 1991 partly over a controversial edict that all officers must live within city limits.

(Michael Slager, the now-fired officer who shot Scott, lived in the nearby city of Hanahan).

North Charleston’s population of roughly 100,000 is 47 percent black, according to the 2010 Census. Its police force, however, is about 80 percent white.

It speaks to what makes North Charleston so unremarkable. Across the country, officers patrol neighborhoods they enter only when duty calls. It’s not their community, in the intimate sense of that word. They’re just occupying the territory so bad guys can’t.

Was that Slager’s mindset? Did it make it easier for him to pull the trigger? How else does an officer give himself permission to shoot a fleeing and apparently unarmed man in the back?

That’s not a question just for North Charleston. I’m pretty sure there’s no sinister secret ingredient in the water its officers drink.

That’s a question all of America must answer.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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