Steve Estes: Cameras and Cops

Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement, by Steve EstesWe welcome a guest post today from Steve Estes, author of Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Once one of the wealthiest cities in America, Charleston, South Carolina, established a society built on the racial hierarchies of slavery and segregation. By the 1970s, the legal structures behind these racial divisions had broken down and the wealth built upon them faded. Like many southern cities, Charleston had to construct a new public image. In this important book, Estes chronicles the rise and fall of black political empowerment and examines the ways Charleston responded to the civil rights movement, embracing some changes and resisting others.

In today’s post, Estes puts the killing of Walter Scott in the context of the history of police policy and race relations in Charleston.

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Video recordings of police brutality in the past year, including the horrific shooting of Walter Scott in the South Carolina Low Country, have led many to argue that body cameras will solve the problems of racial profiling and brutality in law enforcement. While body cameras do bring accountability to both police and suspects, they are no panacea to cure this systemic problem.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, urban police departments struggled with similar problems of racial tensions and police brutality. They addressed these problems in three ways. First, the concept of community policing got cops out of their cars and put them back on the beat to meet the people they served and protected. Second, urban police forces aggressively promoted diversity through affirmative action, hiring trailblazing African American and Latino chiefs for the first time in history. Finally, police forces began to prioritize hiring better-educated officers. All three of these strategies were successful in helping to professionalize and diversify city police departments across the country.

I saw this first hand in my research on Charleston, South Carolina, in the post–civil rights era. In 1960 Charleston had a police department that was almost entirely white, policing a city that was majority African American. By the 1970s, a new chief had implemented community policing. By the early 1980s, the city had hired its first black (and Jewish) chief, Reuben Greenberg. Greenberg continued community policing and required all new hires to have a college degree. White and black Charlestonians embraced Greenberg as both a symbol and catalyst of real change.

At this same time, however, the Charleston police department and departments around the country were deployed to fight two “wars” on the home front. They fought a war on crime, of course, but also on drugs. Thinking about policing as war and civilians as the enemy led to a crackdown on impoverished urban minority communities the likes of which the country had never seen before. It wiped out the good will created by community policing, diversification, and professionalization.  It didn’t matter if the beat cop knew the community, if the chief was black, or even if officers had graduate degrees in criminology. As long as suspects were seen as enemies in a “war,” casualties were inevitable.

This is the situation we have today. We see it in Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, Cleveland, the South Carolina Low Country, and the rest of the country. Cameras will help cops. They will help suspects. But if we examine the history of modern policing and race relations, what we really need is an old mindset about criminal justice. That is right. I said “old” mindset. With a return to community policing, diversity, and professionalism, we can put justice back in the system. We can declare a ceasefire in the “war” on crime.

Steve Estes is professor of history at Sonoma State University. He was born in North Carolina and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. His book Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement will be published in September 2015 and is available for pre-order now. His previous books include I AM a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement and Ask and Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out.