Former Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg remembered as groundbreaking, passionate
By Glenn Smith and Schuyler Kropf, Post & Courier
Former Charleston Police Chief Reuben M. Greenberg, a charismatic and combative leader who drove down crime and drew national attention to the Holy City during his 23 years as its top cop, died Wednesday after a long period of declining health. He was 71.
Mayor Joe Riley said Greenberg – the city’s first and only black police chief – will long be remembered as a pioneer and innovative pace-setter who led the force at a time when Charleston was growing again in terms of national prominence.
“He is an historic figure in this historic city,” Riley said shortly after news of Greenberg’s passing began to spread. “The quality and the credibility of his police leadership made him a national figure.”
Greenberg died in Charleston where he had been cared for in an assisted living facility for some time.
He was considered something of a curiosity right from the start: a black, Jewish, roller-skating cop chosen to lead an overwhelmingly white southern police force in a tradition-bound city on the cusp of great change.
Former City Council member Yvonne Evans said Greenberg left a positive mark on Charleston for both his unique style and for his efforts to modernize the force.
“I thought he changed Charleston for the better when he came,” she said. “He was groundbreaking in the new methods of policing that he brought.”
He made it a requirement that all new hires at the police department have a four-year college degree.
Greenberg’s in-your-face, larger-than-life style – and his hard-hitting approach to fighting crime – made him both a national celebrity and a source of pride for the city. But he also had his share of critics who were put off by his brash demeanor and hair-trigger temper.
Greenberg abruptly retired in August 2005, citing medical reasons. The announcement followed closely on the heels of a bizarre incident in which the chief angrily confronted a woman who had called 911 to report his erratic driving. The episode was an odd and unfortunate end to a distinguished, 40-year career in law enforcement.
Still, many in the community remained fiercely loyal, remembering Greenberg as the man who restored luster to a troubled department and kept order during the dark days after Hurricane Hugo.
Perhaps his most infamous quote came during the storm’s immediate aftermath when he told the force not to show tolerance for looters.
“Don’t arrest anybody. Beat ’em. We have nowhere to put them,” he said. Some found it ironic that Greenberg died just days after Hugo’s 25th anniversary.
An agent for change
Current and former law enforcement officers said Greenberg helped change policing across South Carolina, bringing in new professionalism, tactics and ideas. While he could be brash and unpredictable, few doubted his dedication to his chosen profession.
“He was a change-agent, no doubt about it, an excellent chief and a man for the times,” said longtime colleague Ned Hethington, who served as interim police chief after Greenberg retired. “He was very demanding. He was on the job 24 hours a day, and he expected the job to be done at a very high level. He never made any apologies about that.”
His style raised the profile of the Charleston Police Department and the city as a whole, said retired Lt. Richard Moser, who served for many years under Greenberg. “I think he made the community feel secure and safe in the way he policed,” he said.
Prior to his arrival in 1982, Greenberg earned his many degrees in the San Francisco Bay area during the turbulent years marked by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights protests. He worked in law enforcement and also taught college-level public safety courses.
Riley hired Greenberg from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement where he was deputy director of the standards and training division. He beat 170 applicants for the Charleston job, inheriting a department dispirited by the suicide of the previous chief and in a city struggling with racial tension and high crime rates.
The Texas native was decidedly “from off” in Charleston, where a premium is placed on lineage and tradition. A string of national newspapers, TV shows like “60 Minutes,” and magazines did stories about the perceived oddity of him. US magazine explained “the appointment of a black police chief in Charleston, S.C., would naturally spark curiosity,” in its 1982 article. The Los Angeles Times profiled Greenberg in 1983 under the headline: “A Black, Jewish, Roller-Skating Cop Brings A New Way to Fight Crime to the Old South.”
Some of his methods included putting Charleston officers on the street on foot, bicycle and horseback and he combined tough policies on police use of force with aggressive crime-fighting tactics, such as questioning suspicious persons on the street and laying bait for thieves. And he didn’t just ride a desk. He could be found patrolling the city’s streets at all hours of the day, popping in at crime scenes or barking commands over the police radio.
“Tough, Energetic Chief Making a Dent on Crime,” The New York Times headlined a story about Greenberg in 1987. “Reuben Greenberg’s methods actually get results,” said Newsweek in 1990.
That same year, Greenberg went to Mobile, Ala., for six months to improve its police department. “Charisma is his middle name,” cooed the Mobile Press Register, in a story about his successes there.
Greenberg’s 1989 book, “Let’s Take Back Our Streets,” sold more than 70,000 copies. He traveled extensively, speaking and teaching across the country and abroad. He also was courted by officials of some of the country’s major cities, but each time he chose to remain in Charleston.
Quirky and unpredictable
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said Greenberg likely stayed because of the strong support he enjoyed from Riley which allowed him to be himself, try new approaches and achieve success.
Cannon butted heads with Greenberg on occasion, including in the mid-1990s when Greenberg sent him a letter telling him to have deputies refrain from talking with city officers on police radio frequencies. But the two men also worked on several major investigations together, and Greenberg took Cannon and his son to their first – and only – rodeo. Unknown to many, rodeos and trains were passions of Greenberg’s.
Cannon said Greenberg was unique in that he fit no pattern and had “an uncanny ability to recognize what many people expected him to do, and he would do just the opposite.”
One would never expect a police chief to suggest clubbing looters rather than arresting them, or to pose for a photo in a baseball cap with a Confederate flag on it in the midst of a heated debate over the banner flying at the Capitol, Cannon said. But Greenberg did just that, and people reveled in his no-nonsense approach, he said.
“He made an indelible impression on a lot of people,” Cannon said.
Howie Comen, a Charleston private investigator, said Greenberg used his influence to bring together people of different faiths. In the early 1990s, Greenberg and Comen’s mother co-chaired a Jewish minyan, or communal prayer, to which a local imam had been invited. The Muslim leader spoke of the need for people of different faiths to work together in harmony. Greenberg took the suggestion to heart, and the discussions that followed were instrumental in the creation of the Charleston Congress of Religions, Comen said.
Greenberg, whose middle name was Morris, could also be quirky and charming. One March, he dressed in a full leprechaun costume for St. Patrick’s Day, and he routinely played Santa Claus at Christmas. During his early years in Charleston, he often was seen out roller-skating with a police radio strapped to his side.
“I’ve never seen a police chief do that in all my life,” said former City Councilman Wendell Gilliard. “There were two sides to Reuben Greenberg,” he added, pointing to the one who could control a crowd by police work, and then be humble to someone in a bad situation.
“He froze police brutality,” added former City Council member Robert Ford, who credited Greenberg for meeting with sometimes skeptical community groups to explain his philosophy on policing.
But a lasting legacy is that Greenberg was known – in the nation’s most polite city – for his hot temper and blunt comments. He cursed about City Council in front of a television camera, made controversial statements about black-on-black homicide and shoved a TV reporter while a camera was rolling, among other incidents. More than once he was known to chew out reporters, erupting out of an otherwise seemingly easy-going interview.
His tirades took their toll on the rank-and-file as well. Some officers still tell a story of Greenberg growing so angry during a withering dress-down of his troops that blood trickled from a burst vessel in his forehead. On another occasion, he was heard screaming over the police radio because the three clocks in the department’s lobby weren’t synchronized.
Riley, however, remained unwavering in his support. Even when the chief’s antics drew embarrassing publicity for the city, Riley routinely described Greenberg as the “best police chief in America.”
But even Riley was troubled by an Aug. 7, 2005 incident in which Greenberg confronted a woman who’d alerted emergency dispatchers after seeing a police pickup truck swerving on S.C. Highway 61 shortly after 1 a.m. Greenberg, who was driving the truck, heard the report on his police radio, stopped in the road with his emergency lights on and then banged his fist on the woman’s car repeatedly while telling her not to call the police again.
Riley ordered Greenberg to take time off and get a medical examination. Greenberg retired a week later, saying his doctor had advised him to step down, citing hypertension. There was a large show of good-bye held by city leaders outside the city’s law enforcement municipal building, which is now named in his honor.
After his retirement, Greenberg faded from public view. As recently as 2008 he was living in Tryon, N.C., where, in a rare interview given to The Post and Courier, he admitted to having two or three strokes before his departure from the force.
“I don’t get angry anymore,” he said of his quiet obscure life in the mountains. “I’m happy.”
In more recent times he returned to Charleston, quietly living out of the public eye in a facility in West Ashley as his health deteriorated.