An African-American police chief makes a difference

An African-American police chief makes a difference

Gandhi, Hetal

On Feb. 4, Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, was shot to death by four policemen in New York City. Once again, many AfricanAmericans felt that the criminal justice system had failed. But in Charleston, S.C., an AfricanAmerican is setting an example for how police departments should function.

Reuben Greenberg, the city’s 54-year-old chief of police, has been recognized by the community and his fellow officers for the changes he has made in the 18 years he has held that job. Greenberg worked all over the U.S., from San Francisco to Orlando, before coming to Charleston. He was drawn to the city partly because he thought he could help decrease the high number of complaints against police and the high number of shootings.

“Before Chief Greenberg came to our department, we simply reacted to situations,” says Lt. Edwin Chin, who has been with the department for 21 years. “It was day-to-day routine. But the chief instituted a pro-active approach to our job.”

Charleston is the second largest port city in the country, which means it attracts a high number of tourists. Their safety was one of Greenberg’s priorities. Since he took office, there have been only three shootings involving police officers. So how has he succeeded? Greenberg says the answers are relatively simple. His first objective was to hire only college graduates to work on the force. He also has added four lawyers to his staff to consult with officers. Education and communication, he says, have been the keys to solving many of the department’s problems.

“I don’t have to implement any diversity training programs because when you hire college graduates, you automatically get a diverse population of officers,” he says.

Adds Lt. Chin: “This place is like the United Nations.” He notes that by having about 300 policemen from 42 different states and 14 different countries, you can understand the world around you and better serve your community.

“I’ll be at home,” Chin says, “and someone from the department will call me to the scene because there is a Chinese person who doesn’t speak English. When I get there, there are about three other Asian officers already there. By being able to communicate with the people, we are able to build a partnership with the community.”

Greenberg agrees on the importance of communicating with the community: “I live next door to these people. I see them at the grocery store, the barbershop. I see them everywhere, and so I want to run a police department that they can respect and trust.”

Greenberg’s policies are producing results. In 1991, the Charleston Police Department was the first in South Carolina to be accredited for its high standards. Charleston also is among only three departments in the U.S. recognized by Dr. Carl Crocker, professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, for demonstrating high police ethics.

The most satisfying recognition, however, has come from the community and the members of Charleston’s own police force. Sgt. Charles Hawkins says that since Greenberg came to Charleston, “There has been a lot more help from the community, and we have built and maintained a better relationship with them.” The department sends out an officer to respond to every call. Hawkins says that kind of response receives favorable feedback from the community.

Lt. Chin talks about how Greenberg has “professionalized us by educating us.” He calls Greenberg’s approach “the most innovative and most aggressive of any law enforcement executive around.”

Charleston’s African-American population is fairly high and comprises about 41 percent of the people living in the city. There are racial tensions, largely because of the perception that blacks tend to be more involved in criminal activities. Most violent crimes, Greenberg says, involve black-on-black conflict, which lends itself to negative stereo.types that create a vicious cycle of discrimination.

Greenberg says that if he could send one message to the African-American community, it would be, “We owe the black criminal absolutely nothing, and we should not let ourselves be defined by this small group.”

At a time when many Americans are questioning the criminal justice system, the community of Charleston is embracing its police department. Change in the criminal justice system can begin with Charleston’s example, where a chief of police has installed values of education and ethics to develop a more humane and well respected police department.

Hetal Gandhi is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville, Florida.

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated May/Jun 1999

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