Lowcountry arrests follow national trend

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Report: Black and Hispanic residents arrested more than whites in Lowcountry

By Mindy Lucas

Update: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Beaufort Police Department did release its arrest data at the end of March which is included in its 2020 Annual Report now published on its website. An interview with task force founder Lisa Allen was conducted prior to this.

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police last spring gave rise to protests across the country and around the world, many Americans began looking within their own communities wondering how officers in their area might be handling traffic stops and arrests.

Chief among questions raised by one Lowcountry grassroots, community-based group was whether officers out on patrol were using impartial tactics and procedural justice.

“Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian — rather than a warrior – mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public,” states the Citizens Task Force for Law Enforcement Accountability in recently released reports.

Formed in 2020, the task force has been working with officials from the area’s four primary law enforcement agencies, and in some cases civic leaders as well, to obtain such information as citation and ticket data, use-of-force data and other information.

The task force has encouraged those agencies to make that data public and easily accessible on their websites. In addition, department officials have said they practice non-biased policing.

However, various reports released by the group earlier this year still raise troubling questions about the arrest numbers of several of the area’s law enforcement agencies.

In Bluffton for example, Black people were arrested at a rate three times that of their percentage of the population in 2020, according to the task force’s findings.

Black residents only represent 7 percent of Bluffton’s population according to current census data, but represent 33 percent of the 319 arrests made in the town last year, the report showed.

But Bluffton is not alone in its disproportionate number of arrests of people of color.

In Beaufort County, the data showed that in 2020 Black people made up the majority of those arrested, or 52 percent, while Hispanics made up 11 percent of those arrested. For comparison, White individuals made up only 36 percent of those arrested.

In Port Royal, Black people made up the majority of people arrested, or 54 percent, in 2020, while Hispanics made up 11 percent. White individuals made up 36 percent of those arrested.

In the meantime, officials with all of the area’s law enforcement agencies have said it’s important to keep in mind, they don’t just police those who are residents of their individual jurisdictions.

For example, 77 percent of all arrests made by Port Royal police in 2020 were of non-residents.

Still, the task force maintains the population data provides the public with some insight, or benchmarks for comparisons, in months to come as to who is arrested, ticketed, warned or restrained.

What’s more, to make sure that comparison is accurate, the task force researched populations of every municipality in the county, the county as a whole, and four surrounding counties, Allen said. Black people represent the minority in our area of the country.

In addition, the trend of minorities being arrested the most in individual communities follows the national numbers, the task force found.

In 800 jurisdictions across the United States, Black people were arrested at a rate five times higher than White people over a three-year period ending in 2018, according to a recent ABC analysis of data voluntarily reported to the FBI.

Factors such as poverty and laws that affect different groups of people differently such as loitering, vehicle maintenance, registration and insurance, and ordinances related to illegal drugs, might also have an impact on the numbers, Allen said.

The task force’s goal is to keep a focus on that data to see if it changes over time or if upticks develop in any one set of data, try to find out what is causing it, she added.

Police chiefs respond

Bluffton Police Chief Stephenie Price said while officers do have discretion in deciding whether to give an individual a warning or a traffic citation, they have “less leeway” when it comes to arrests.

“If someone wants to press charges against someone and there is probable cause, we make the arrest,” Price said in the task force’s February report. “When we respond to a burglary, for example, we have no idea at that time who might be the suspect.”

Reached last week about the report, Price, who became Bluffton’s Police Chief in October also said, “It is my intention as a law enforcement professional and a person who cares about our community, to continually educate and train my staff about cultural diversity and to be conscious of judgments when approaching every situation.”

Price went on to say, “My strategic plan for growing the department is to provide a continual spectrum of leadership development, diversity training and recruitment opportunities with the goal of hiring officers and staff members who reflect our town.”

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner has said his office enforces laws impartially.

“We hold our deputies to a high standard, backed by strong policy and adherence to professional accountability,” he said in the task force’s January report. “We remain open to discussions that help us achieve our mission of better understanding and addressing the diverse issues affecting Beaufort County.”

Beaufort Police Chief Dale McDorman said his officers also practice non-biased policing.

“All of our officers receive extensive bias profile training upon being hired and then annually. Our last session was held in June 2020; it is taught by the instructors from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Unintentional bias does occur, and we want to make sure that all of our officers are trained to be aware of it,” he said.

Port Royal Police Chief Alan Beach said it was also important to note that many of the arrests made in his jurisdiction stemmed from “a relatively small group of people” not from Port Royal that committed multiple crimes repeatedly.

“Some arrests involve a single defendant with multiple charges (i.e. John Doe is arrested and charged with DUI, driving under suspension and possession of marijuana),” he stated in the report. “Arrest data will reflect three arrests. However, there was only one individual arrested.”

Allen said this is the case with all of the arrest data gathered from the other jurisdictions as well.

At the task force’s urging, both the City of Beaufort and Town of Bluffton’s police departments have started posting their data on their respective websites.

Related Stories: Benefit of the Doubt — Who gets more tickets in the Lowcountry, minorities or whites? And who gets a pass?


ABOUT THIS SERIES – Policing the Police: The Island News takes a look at the work of the Citizens Task Force for Law Enforcement Accountability, created in 2020, and their findings.

Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at mindy.islandnews@gmail.com.