Charleston Says Goodbye to Former Police Chief Reuben Greenberg

Chief Reuben Greenberg, at the police stables near Hampton Park, was in charge of city police for 23 years. FILE/WADE SPEES/STAFF

Charleston’s former police chief Reuben Greenberg was remembered at a funeral service Sunday as a strong leader who reduced the city’s crime rate while strengthening community ties and healing racial divisions.

Greenberg, who died last week at 71, retired in 2005 after 23 years in charge of the city police. His tenure coincided with Charleston’s economic revival and growth as an international tourist destination, and included one of the greatest natural disasters to strike the city in decades – Hurricane Hugo.

“The quality of a city police chief is central to the success of a city,” said Mayor Joe Riley, addressing a crowd of several hundred during the funeral at Synagogue Emanu-El in West Ashley.

It was Riley who selected Greenberg from among 140 applicants for the top cop job in 1982, and the mayor recalled wondering if Greenberg, who had several advanced degrees, was too much of an academic. Riley said those concerns were quickly washed away when he interviewed Greenberg, who would become known as a very hands-on police leader.

Greenberg would often arrive at crime scenes ahead patrol officers, responding to even minor complaints.

“It seemed he was everywhere,” Riley said. “Under Reuben’s leadership the crime rate came down and people felt safe in our city.”

Greenberg was a study in contrasts, and was the subject of many national news stories as a result. He was a Texas native who enjoyed rodeos, a Jewish man who dressed as Santa Claus in the Christmas parade, and reached out to the Muslim community, a black police chief in the cradle of the Confederacy, and a tough-talking cop who liked to roller skate.

Riley credited Greenberg with making sure there was not widespread looting after Hurricane Hugo struck – it was widely reported that Greenberg had advised officers to beat looters rather than arrest them – and also with keeping price-gougers at bay after the hurricane.

“Reuben told them to get the bleep out of Charleston,” said Riley, to chuckles from the crowd.

Greenberg was known for his flashes of anger as well as his humor. His 2005 retirement followed an angry confrontation with a female motorist who had reported him for erratic driving, which led Riley to order a medical evaluation.

Greenberg resigned a week later, and years later revealed he had suffered several strokes during his last year in office. The city gave Greenberg an honor-filled send-off when he retired, and named a municipal building in his honor.

At the synagogue, Riley recalled how Greenberg displayed leadership when the Ku Klux Klan came to march in Charleston. There was no way to deny the group a permit, so Greenberg suggested giving them a permit to march at 2 p.m. on a Sunday in August, when the heat would be awful and the city uncrowded.

“Reuben told them he would lead their march, to keep them safe,” Riley said. “This is what you had; a brilliant, black, Jewish police chief leading a Klan march.

“Reuben Greenberg, in that quiet, graceful way, had defeated the Klan, and they never came back,” said the mayor.

Only Riley and Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum spoke at the 40-minute service, where Greenberg’s coffin lay draped with the Star of David.

Rosenbaum noted that Greenberg, an active member of the synagogue, had donated one of the dozen stained glass windows representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Greenberg donated the window representing the tribe of Reuben.

Rosenbaum made a further connection between the Reuben who led one of the tribes of Israel, and the Reuben who led the Charleston Police Department, by quoting a complimentary line from Genesis, Chapter 49, in which Jacob describes his firstborn son Reuben as “exceeding in rank, and exceeding in honor.”

Rosenbaum said that description was fitting for Greenberg, whose work within the community included helping find jobs for Jewish immigrants from Russia.

“These were the smaller things that made all the difference,” said Rosenbaum. “May his name and memory always be for a blessing.”

Greenberg’s father was a Jewish Russian immigrant, and Greenberg converted to his father’s religion when he was 26.

Muslim community leader Rahim Karriem was among those who attended the service, and afterwards he said Greenberg was also “a friend of the Muslim community.”

“He really had an outreach to other people and other religions,” Karriem said. “There were a lot of things he did to bridge relationships.”

“We feel indebted to him,” in our community.

Downtown Charleston community leader Rev. Alma Dungee said, after the service, that one of the best things Greenberg did as police chief was putting officers on foot patrols in the community.

“People got to meet the officers and get to know them,” she said.

After the service ended and Greenberg’s casket was wheeled to a waiting hearse for the trip to Mount Pleasant Memorial Gardens, the sound of bagpipe music filled the air, courtesy of the Charleston Police Pipes and Drums Unit, which Greenberg founded in 1995.

Riley told mourners and Greenberg’s wife of 33 years, Sarah, that he didn’t feel Charleston took a chance hiring Greenberg. Rather, he said Greenberg took a chance accepting a job in a city barely a generation removed from racial segregation.

“Reuben opened doors of racial progress all over this community,” said the mayor. “He made the city safer, and made it a more just and better place.