Charleston Police chief candidates reveal their plans for department’s future

Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 5:00 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 18, 2023 at 5:37 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The five finalists to become the next police chief for the city of Charleston met with leaders and community leaders Monday.

The city released a list last week of the five candidates along with their biographies.

Future of the department

Although each candidate had a unique vision for the department, community engagement was a common theme among all five candidates.

Robert Bage, who currently serves as the Fort Walton, Florida Police Chief, said he wants to build on Chief Luther Reynolds’s legacy of community-oriented policing. He said he also wants to focus on mental health for both citizens and officers.

“I want to really engage with the community, I saw the stuff Chief Reynolds did with the community from afar. I read publications and I saw events that would take place in Charleston, I think I can build on that legacy,” Bage said.

Shunta Boston, the Assistant Chief of the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin Police Department, said she also wants to focus on community policing. She said it’s important to look at each individual in the community as a human being.

“I’m concerned about every aspect of you as a human, everyone is a human, and I do believe that, although we are the police, we are still responsible for making sure that not only everyone is safe, but everyone has a great life,” Boston said.

Jason Bruder, who currently serves as the commander over the Community Oriented Policing Division at the Charleston Police Department, said he’ll focus on issues specific to Charleston using technology to help policing.

“I’m focused on that community aspect, how do we implement body-worn cameras and all the other technology that’s out there into our responses and really try to make sure our officers are going to the calls that they need to,” Bruder said.

The Interim Police Chief of the Charleston Police Department, Chito Walker, said he plans to build on Reynolds’s legacy by focusing on community engagement. He said he also wants to grow the skills of officers in the department with training and education.

“We have to educate ourselves, education is a big part of that. Training, best practices, looking at what’s around the world and taking things we could use, and disregarding things that don’t fit our culture,” Walker said.

Jack Weiss, the current Deputy Chief of Police at the Charleston Police Department, said Reynolds opened his eyes to public engagement policies, and he believes building on that will help combat the opioid and homelessness crisis.

“He opened our eyes to build on our engagement strategies. I always thought one of the biggest things was to engage with our folks, to be open and honest with our officers and those that work under myself at the police department,” Weiss said.

Community policing

Each candidate was asked what role community policing would serve in the department if they became the next chief of police for the City of Charleston.

Bage said small things go a long way in building relationships with the community. Like, for example, an officer helping someone get keys out of their locked car.

“We should waste no opportunity in engaging the community,” Bage said.

Boston said community engagement is a must, adding the police department cannot do it by themselves.

“The community is why we exist, and because we exist because of the community, we are in their house,” Boston said.

Bruder said community policing is more than just a phrase.

“We need to have officers that work a beat, understand their neighborhood, and it’s not just about that’s where they patrol or drive around, they know who just had a baby, they know who just had a birthday,” Bruder said.

Walker said the department should welcome criticism and an open dialogue with the public.

“It’s a two-way dialogue. You have to be willing to have those tough conversations, We are not above reproach,” Walker said.

Weiss said community policing has been an important aspect to him his entire career.

“Being engaged with the community is the way to prevent crime, it’s the way to respond to crime, it’s the way to get information needed to solve crimes,” Weiss said.

Accountability and transparency

Each candidate answered questions about the role accountability and transparency would serve in the department under their leadership.

Weiss said it’s critical that officers be open and honest with citizens, explaining why they are doing what they’re doing.

“Often, many of the issues that have come up in law enforcement is because law enforcement is in this little silo over here, ‘we’re not going to tell people what we’re doing,’ versus being open and honest with people,” Weiss said.

Walker said he plans on continuing the efforts under Reynolds for the department to be open and transparent, and to focus on public education.

“Being educational, being like the professor for this community when it comes to public safety and what they can expect from us,” Walker said.

Bruder said he will focus on evidence-based policing, analyzing data to make sure the numbers are lining up where they should.

“We’re never going to be able to do this job without the public, so we have to make sure that they trust us. Some of that’s getting officers into areas more frequently to build that trust,” Bruder said.

Boston said she grew up in a community that did not trust the police. She said it’s important for police to explain why they are there.

“Being very transparent about how come the police are there is very important while building trust in a community. If people don’t understand why you are there, the walls immediately go up,” Boston said.

Bage said he wants to invite the community into the Police Department to make recommendations about the department, and that transparency is key.

“We do a great job of explaining what we do and how we do things, I don’t think we do as good of a job explaining why we do things,” Bage said.