Charleston Church Shootings Test ‘Dean of America’s Mayors’ in His Final Year in Office

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley David Goldman / AP File Photo


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Mayor Joe Riley cites the “extraordinary cooperation” of law enforcement. And now that a suspect is in custody, the “necessary process of the healing together” can begin.

Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, has been known as the “Dean of America’s Mayors” for many years. He’s been mayor of South Carolina’s second-largest city for 40 years and advised plenty of other mayors and municipal leaders working with organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The Post and Courier newspaper described him in a January feature “ as a full-fledged rock star, a legend among municipal politicians.

And now, in his last year in office, many eyes are now on the “Dean of America’s Mayors,” who has been front and center dealing with a great tragedy no mayor would want to befall their local community.

During a Thursday morning news conference in Charleston, Riley praised his police chief and the men and women of the Charleston Police Department who responded to Wednesday night’s tragedy at Emanuel AME Church, the historic black house of worship where nine people were shot and killed.

We invest substantially in the resources and the quality of the men and women who work for our police department. And with Chief Mullen, there is not a better led police department in our country.

Riley also cited the “extraordinary cooperation” his city’s police department received from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies:

When you have a chance to work on a difficult matter and see the skills and commitment of the people who have dedicated their lives to law enforcement, it is so inspirational.

Because of all of that work, this very important news today is announced. That awful person—that terrible human being who would go into a place of worship where people were praying and kill them—is now in custody where he will always remain.

A suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof of Lexington, South Carolina, was apprehended by law enforcement in North Carolina on Thursday morning. According to The Post and Courier , Roof “wore white supremacist patches, had strong conservative beliefs about the South and may have recently received a gun for his birthday.”

Riley, who led his city through Hurricane Hugo and its recovery more than 25 years ago, rallied his community to start the recovery process after Wednesday night's tragedy, announcing that the city would contribute $5,000 to a special Hope Fund to assist the families impacted by the church shootings:

It’s important for everyone wounded by this act—which are the church family members, the community members and the people of America—in this great country, we hold sacred the place where people come and practice their faiths in safety and in peace. So the arrest of this awful man is an important part for all of us in this community and in our country to begin the necessary process of the healing together.

During the news conference, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley thanked Riley for his leadership. “He’s always had great leadership but during times of struggle he steps up even more and continues to make Charleston proud,” she said.

In an interview on National Public Radio's " All Things Considered " on Thursday, Riley said it's been the saddest day in his all his years as mayor and that "it's still impossible really to digest and I imagine it will be a long time, certainly . . . it will be a long time to get over this."

Other municipal leaders around the nation have released statements in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

According to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu :

The fatal shooting of nine people in a Charleston church bible study class is both tragic and sad. This heinous, hateful and cowardly act has no place in our society, and I encourage the entire country to unite in condemning this action and come together to conquer this type of hate in America. I and the people of New Orleans send our thoughts and deepest prayers to the friends and families of those who were killed and to the people of Charleston during this very difficult time.

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors, released a statement on Thursday morning :

While the details of the shooting in a Charleston church are still unclear, the nation's mayors are sickened by this news. We stand by Mayor Joe Riley, known as the Dean of America's Mayors, at such a difficult time. Our hearts and prayers go out to the people of Charleston and their families.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Thursday that law enforcement there would be increasing security at black churches as a precaution.

According to The New York Observer :

The mayor pledged to increase police presence in the vicinity of the city’s larger black houses of worship. He added that the response would mirror NYPD reactions to recent attacks attacks on synagogues and Jewish people in other countries.

“We make it a point to reinforce peak community locations when that has occurred,” he said. “We, in this case, are going to reinforce key African-American religious institutions, and be very watchful for anything that suggests any other type of attack.”

The Charleston shootings will inevitably become a discussion point in the nation’s ongoing debate over gun rights. Although Riley said Thursday that while it’s hard to know “what could have been done” to prevent the tragedy, he told reporters, according to The Washington Post , that he believes “there are far too many guns out there, and access to guns, it’s far too easy. Our society has not been able to deal with that yet.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated with additional comments from Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor for Government Executive's Route Fifty.

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