By MINDY LUCAS
A relatively new grassroots group formed earlier in the summer to hold police accountable and facilitate transparency and communication with the public has since received the support of the area’s primary law enforcement agencies.
The Citizens Task Force for Law Enforcement Accountability was created by Beaufort resident Lisa Allen in June after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
A veteran news journalist who also worked in community relations for the criminal and civil court systems in Indianapolis, Allen decided to form the group after wondering if something like the Floyd incident could happen in Beaufort County.
She also wanted to learn more about how local law enforcement agencies were set up in terms of policies, training and resources for officers.
“As a journalist, I thought, how do I answer that question and of course it’s through data,” she said.
Allen began by building a coalition made up of community members and leaders with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
The task force includes such members as Beaufort County Coroner Ed Allen, retired United States Air Force Maj. Gen. Harold Mitchell, and founder of United Beaufort Tim Garvin, among others.
Allen and task force member Nancy Ritter, who worked for the National Institute of Justice, then drew up a plan that included such items as employing mental health first responders across all jurisdictions and the adoption of specific use-of-force policies.
“Our mission is to increase the trust, collaboration and communication between residents and the police, which in turn will make everyone — police and residents — safer,” Allen said in a presentation made to Beaufort City Council.
Allen presented the plan to other town and county councils as well, she said, in an effort to build trust and cooperation.
The task force asked that costs for processing any requests made through the Freedom of Information Act be waived since the grassroots group has no money for such requests.
Since then, Bluffton has agreed to waive those fees and Allen is currently working with the other municipalities and law enforcement agencies to obtain estimates and waivers as well.
While the full task force has only met once, members have since met with all four of the area’s primary law enforcement agencies including the Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal police departments as well as the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
All have indicated their willingness to work with the 30-plus-member task force toward its mission of increased communication and transparency, Allen said.
The group’s efforts have been well received and are vital to collecting data, she said.
“It’s vital because if one works in a vacuum, either on the law enforcement or the community side, you’re working with distortions and misunderstandings and that can be perilous with data because one has to have a conversation about the context of the data we’re collecting to understand what it means,” she said.
Allen and the group were encouraged to learn that all of the area’s agencies had already adopted all eight of the policies encouraged by 8 Can’t Wait, a national database launched by Campaign Zero that tracks major cities’ use of eight policies such as banning chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles.
A nonprofit which aims to curtail the use of force by police, Campaign Zero says that by adopting these eight policies, violence committed by police can be reduced by 72 percent.
Part of the Beaufort task force’s plan is to gather data to use as benchmarks, work with law enforcement agencies to better understand the data and possibly identify areas where reform is needed.
After meeting with members of the task force, the Beaufort Police Department recently began posting additional data to its website including its use of force report for 2019 and demographics on citations it issues.
“I find that extremely encouraging,” said Allen.
Sharing data and posting it where the public can view it not only increases trust and transparency, she said, it can also be mutually beneficial.
Capt. George Erdel a spokesman for the Beaufort Police Department, agreed with Allen.
“Any time members of the community take an active interest in the betterment of their community, it is a beneficial thing,” he said.
Erdel said social media has also been a “huge driving factor” in the department’s decision to post more information online.
As a result, the department now routinely posts information about crime trends, community policing initiatives and other department news.
“An area where we are improving in is in the tracking and disclosure of data in ways that we haven’t done before,” he said.
The data the department recently began adding to its website under the link “data” now includes an annual Use of Force Analysis. Erdel pointed to this report as an example of information residents might like to view.
In 2019, for example, officers used force in 29 out of the 710 total arrests made, or only 4 percent and the level of force never rose above empty-hand control techniques, he said.
“That means that in many situations involving resistant suspects, our officers used less force than they might otherwise legally have been justified in using,” he said, adding that the department is planning to do a “deeper dive” into the data for future reports.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner also sees working with the task force as being mutually beneficial and likened it to what his office does already through its Citizen’s Police Academy, or CPA.
Formed in 2004, CPA strives to provide residents with a greater understanding of “what the office does, why they do it and how they do it,” Tanner said.
“I’m looking at (the task force) to do the same exact thing,” he said. “I want them to have a very good understanding of how Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office polices, why we police the way we do, all the checks and balances we have and that we’re policy driven.”
The sheriff’s office just recently updated its use of force policy to ban officers from using chokeholds except as a last resort and also requires officers to intervene if they witness misconduct.
The updates were done prior to a meeting with members of the task force, which took place at the end of July.
In addition, all Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies already wear body cameras and have cameras in their vehicles – something the task force is looking into for all agencies – though the sheriff’s office had to pay for the cameras and equipment out of its own budget, Tanner said.
The state has since reimbursed his office for some of the expense, he said.
Additional funding for equipment and training is something Tanner feels strongly about.
“Training is number one,” he said. “If you want a qualified law enforcement officer serving the citizens of this state, you gotta train them.”
In fact, Tanner is currently working with state legislators to advocate that the state’s Criminal Justice Academy have a dedicated line item in the state’s budget for consistent funding.
That funding would enable the state to provide consistent training for all of its law enforcement agencies, additional training to rural areas or agencies that may be operating on skeleton budgets, and additional training such as diversity and mental health training.
The sheriff’s office is planning to add a third mental health professional to its staff soon, Tanner said.
Having mental health counselors on staff has been proven to be beneficial to law enforcement agencies, both Tanner and sheriff’s office spokesperson, Maj. Bob Bromage said.
“The benefit is that it is less contact with the criminal justice system for somebody that has a mental health issue,” Bromage said. “It cuts back on small crime recidivism, gives them the resources to get help, get medication and do follow-up.”
When looking at reform, residents should look at the entire criminal justice system from the courts to sentencing and the law, not just what police are doing on their end, Tanner said.
“We’ve got to look at the big picture,” he said. “And what are we doing right through the process to reduce crime in our community and give confidence to citizens.”
Tanner said he is looking forward to working with the group and wants them to have all the data they need.
Once the data is collected, Allen said the next steps for the task force will be to review the data and go back to the agencies with any questions they have. They will then release their findings to the public through social and local media.
Mindy Lucas is the Beaufort reporter for The Island News and is a staff writer for Lowcountry Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This story was corrected to include the new name for the task force: the Citizens Task Force for Law Enforcement Accountability. The task force also has more than 30 members to date.