A disturbing S.C. police shooting
The Charlotte Observer:
The particulars of the suddenly infamous North Charleston, S.C., police shooting read like the plot of some hyped-up Hollywood crime drama.
A white police officer opens fire on an unarmed black motorist fleeing a traffic stop. Motorist falls, struck by five bullets. Cop walks over with his Taser and drops it near the dying man’s body, then reports on the radio that he fired because the man took the stun gun from him.
While it sounds like an opening scene for a “Law & Order” episode, a bystander’s cellphone video suggests that’s what happened in real life Saturday during a confrontation between North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager and motorist Walter L. Scott.
Slager maintained afterward that he’d been justified in using fatal force against the 50-year-old motorist during a scuffle.
But the video, which emerged Tuesday, appears to show an officer acting not in fear for his life, but as unsanctioned judge, jury and executioner. Some of the worst police offenses imaginable – using unwarranted deadly force, manipulating evidence, lying to cover it up – are all on the table here, judging from the video and its immediate aftermath.
It offers a graphic and unsettling reminder that while most officers perform with self-control, fairness and bravery, not all will live up to that standard on every occasion. The integrity of policing, like any profession, rests on the behavior and decisions of fallible, flawed, and perhaps at times even dark-hearted human beings.
That’s why as more and more of us carry our now-ubiquitous smartphones and their onboard cameras everywhere, it’s increasingly common for the few officers behaving badly to find their misdeeds caught on video.
The Scott video ranks among the most disturbing. When the officer glances in the camera’s direction after the gunshots, there’s a fleeting moment when you fear for the person holding the cellphone.
Every citizen should welcome such bystander videos, even though the worst of them, like Scott’s and that of Eric Garner’s choking death, dent public confidence in the police.
Even so, police officials should welcome such videos for the deterrent effect they can have on any rogue officers hiding in their ranks.
It all makes Charlotte City Council’s recent decision to buy 1,400 body cameras for patrol officers look like $7 million well spent. Also wise is Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s outreach to inner-city communities concerned about police use of force.
Walter Scott joins Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Tamir Rice, and others as symbols of our country’s struggle to defuse the fear-tainted encounters between white police officers and black males.
Slager rightfully stands charged with murder, and could face 30 years to life if convicted. Many would not have believed the allegations against him unless they’d seen the confrontation with their own eyes.
Thanks to a brave bystander with a cellphone, they have.
Ferguson comes to South Carolina
St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Some 855 miles and 238 days separate the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Walter L. Scott in North Charleston, S.C. But the striking similarities of their final minutes will forever connect them.
It’s a Saturday, and a white police officer alone in a cruiser comes upon them.
Both cities have high African-American populations and police departments that don’t reflect the makeup of the population. Black residents in both cities have complained about being unfairly targeted because of the color of their skin.
In Ferguson, the statistics kept as a matter of state law bear out that narrative. South Carolina doesn’t keep racial profiling statistics.
Brown, 18, is walking down Canfield Drive. Scott, 50, is driving near the intersection of Remount and Craig roads. Both men are black. Both are unarmed.
The officer pulls them over. There is a confrontation. The black man flees.
He is shot and killed. He is far from the police officer when he dies.
The white police officer – Darren Wilson in Ferguson and Michael Slager in North Charleston – says the black man grabbed for his weapon. The officer feared for his life.
In the aftermath of the shootings, local or state police agencies block access to important information that by law should be public and would shed light on what truly happened.
There are differences in the narratives – Brown, autopsies showed – was shot from the front. Forensic evidence backed Wilson’s account, and two separate investigations found no reliable witnesses to contradict him.
Scott was clearly shot in the back. Haunting video shot by a bystander records Patrolman 1st Class Slager shooting Scott as he runs away. On Tuesday, after that video surfaced, Slager was charged with murder.
Wilson, while no longer a police officer in Ferguson, is a free man.
In South Carolina, the video left no doubt.
For some, the video evidence will make Scott’s story seem more like the story of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York. In each of those deaths of African-Americans at the hands of white police officers, the gruesome videos caused even white Americans who had no sympathy for Brown to react in horror at the callousness caught on camera.
Various polls taken after grand juries refused to bring charges in both the Brown and Garner deaths found widespread differences in the public reaction. A majority of Americans disagreed with the Garner decision, where video was a factor; while a majority agreed with the Brown decision.
But for most African-Americans who have been victims of Driving While Black, or Walking While Black, for those caught up in the corrupt municipal court cabal that targets them in the St. Louis region, for those in cities all across America who have protested police brutality for more than 238 days, Michael Brown is Walter Scott is Tamir Rice is Eric Garner.
There are important differences in all of these cases, but right or wrong, for many blacks, Ferguson is North Charleston is Cleveland is New York. This is what can happen to black people in too many communities.
This is America in 2015.
What are we going to do about it?
One day after Michael Brown was shot, we noted in an editorial that in the U.S. there is no official count of police shootings, and that there is often a lack of transparency in the investigation of such shootings that diminishes trust between police and the communities they serve.
Both of those things are still true today.
For all that has happened in the past eight months – a national discussion on race and police brutality, the deep study and leadership of the Ferguson Commission, the beginnings of a new civil rights movement, recognition of how fragmentation in St. Louis oppresses the poor, widespread agreement that police should wear body cameras – much remains the same.
In Missouri, there is a push for more body cameras, but some state lawmakers want to keep the video from such cameras hidden from the public. That’s no way to build trust.
There has been talk of adding a civilian oversight board to the St. Louis city police department, the largest police agency in the region. But it got caught up in political squabbles and remains on hold.
On Wednesday, as the Legislature continued debate on a bill that would reduce the incentive for police departments to be used as fundraising tools for cash-strapped municipalities, lawyers representing those cities were before the Missouri Supreme Court, trying to declare the underlying law at the center of that debate unconstitutional.
One step forward. Two steps back.
Perhaps the case of Walter Scott will be the rallying point that elevates this new civil rights movement and reduces the sharp division between black and white, between police and protester. There is at least anecdotal evidence coming out of San Diego’s trial use of body cameras, for instance, that both police and the communities they serve see the benefit. The cameras create a new sense of awareness that changes both police and community behavior, leaders there have said. A study of the camera use over the past year shows use-of-force incidents down 47 percent, and civilian complaints down by 41 percent.
This is common ground that must become the new norm in American policing. Getting there – and quickly – should not be that difficult.
The tougher challenge is for white eyes to see what black eyes see in the criminal justice system in those cases in which video isn’t available. An intense, difficult and ongoing conversation in St. Louis since Aug. 9 has opened some eyes, but it has also hardened hearts.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed this issue head on. In an interview with CBS, he was asked how long the unrest that was sweeping through many cities would last. Here’s what he said:
“I think the answer about how long it will take will depend on the federal government, on the city halls of our various cities, and on White America to a large extent,” he said. “This is where we are at this point, and I think White America will determine how long it will be and which way we go in the future.”
This week, White America and Black America saw a white police officer shoot a fleeing black man in cold blood. But did we really see the same thing? Did we wonder about that initial point of contact? About how smoothly the police officer phonied up his story? About the lack of police video? About the culture of the department? About whether a white driver and a black one would have been pulled over for the same allegedly broken brake light?
Chris Stewart, the attorney for Scott’s family, asked an important question at a news conference on Tuesday:
“What if there had been no video?”
In an age of technology, that’s a question that should haunt us no more.
Cellphone videos enable citizens to enhance the scales of justice in police shootings
The Kansas City Star:
The pervasiveness of video technology in our society is unexpectedly playing a major role at clarifying adversarial and even fatal encounters between police officers and citizens.
The latest example was in North Charleston, S.C., where a bystander’s video contradicted a police officer’s version of a traffic stop Saturday that resulted in the shooting death of 50-year-old Walter L. Scott. Officer Michael T. Slager, 33, had reported that he pulled Scott over for a broken taillight.
Slager reported that he feared for his life after a scuffle in which Scott took his stun gun and ran. The video shows Slager drawing his gun and firing as Scott is running away. The officer runs back to where the scuffle happened, picked up something from the ground and dropped the object near the body. Scott was black; Slager is white.
In large part because of the video, the officer was charged Tuesday in the slaying and fired on Wednesday. The case joins a string of incidents that have brought police actions to the forefront of a debate over race relations, notably in New York, Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland. The police chokehold death of Eric Garner, 43, last July in Staten Island was captured on video. A video caught the police fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, 12, in November in Cleveland.
Similarly a cellphone camera recorded the fatal shooting in 2009 of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a transit police officer in Oakland, Calif.
Many departments are equipping officers with body cameras to promote professionalism and resolve allegations of abuse. But citizens shouldn’t hesitate to also use their cellphones to record encounters. As we have seen this week, video lends clarity when parties’ accounts are conflicting, muddied or downright false.
An abuse on video
The Washington Post:
The video showing former North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael T. Slager shooting Walter L. Scott dead is sickening. There is a full-color record of Mr. Slager firing eight shots at the back of a fleeing Mr. Scott, then deserting the felled body, possibly to tamper with the crime scene. By local authorities’ own admission, it was the fortuitous act of a bystander with a smartphone that led to murder charges against Mr. Slager. We can’t help but wonder whether, in its absence, the officer would have escaped with impunity.
Once the footage came out, the reaction was quick and appropriate. Local authorities charged Mr. Slager, who faces death or a term of 30 years to life, and fired him. The mayor and the police chief visited the Scott family. The grieving family urged disclosure from the police and calm from others. “I don’t think that all police officers are bad cops,” Mr. Scott’s brother, Anthony, said. “But there are some bad ones out there.” The FBI, meanwhile, opened its own investigation.
Even though the case against Mr. Slager is moving forward quickly, the events in North Charleston underscore that police officers across the country must change the way they operate. One would think that the minority of officers who violate policing norms might be checked by the knowledge that so many potential witnesses to their acts now carry cameras in their pockets.
Instead of relying on bystanders to provide evidence of wrongdoing, however, police departments should accept and accelerate the deployment of body cameras (which the North Charleston mayor has done in the wake of the shooting). Crime video isn’t always perfect. But, as the Slager episode shows, it can prove crucial. Many departments already equip patrol cars with dashboard cameras. The probability that video evidence will be useful only increases with the number of cameras rolling during any given event. An extra camera on an officer’s body can help reduce problems stemming from dash cams’ limited vantage. Episodes involving multiple officers will produce multiple electronic points of view.
If Mr. Slager had been wearing a body camera, it would also be a lot easier to determine what he picked up off the ground after shooting Mr. Scott. The most plausible speculation is that he moved his Taser close to Mr. Scott’s body, which would have bolstered the officer’s claim that the victim tried to take it. But a body camera wouldn’t have just made the investigation easier; it might have also prevented the shooting in the first place. There’s good reason to believe that the presence of body cameras will change behavior even more than the possible presence of bystander cellphone cameras, encouraging police and those interacting with them to de-escalate.
When situations nevertheless turn violent, investigations should be led by independent law enforcement agencies. North Charleston did that when it turned the Slager investigation over to state police, and the inquiry will probably be more credible for it. Complete information about police shootings should be reported to the federal government, so the country can finally have a thorough accounting of how and how often officers use force in the United States.
North Charleston still has far to go, both legally and emotionally. But the community has made a solid start.
The Walter Scott Murder
The New York Times:
The horrifying video of a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, shooting and killing an unarmed black man - while the man is running away - may still come as a shock to many Americans. But this heinous act, which the officer tried to explain away by claiming that he feared for his life, strikes a familiar chord in communities of color all across the United States.
The case underscores two problems that have become increasingly clear since the civic discord that erupted last year after the police killed black citizens in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri. The first, most pressing problem is that poorly trained and poorly supervised officers often use deadly force unnecessarily, particularly against minority citizens. The second is that cops get away with unjustly maiming or killing people by lying about the circumstances that prompted them to use force.
The shooting death of Walter Scott on Saturday would have passed into the annals of history unremarked upon had a bystander not used a cellphone to document what happened after Scott encountered the police officer, Michael Slager, after a routine traffic stop.
Slager subsequently reported by radio that he had shot Scott after Scott wrestled away his electronic stun gun. The video, provided to The New York Times by the Scott family’s lawyer, shows a different story. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Slager fired his stun weapon at Scott. The two men tussle, an object that may have been the stun gun falls to the ground and then Scott turns to run away. He appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing when the officer fires eight times. Later in the video, the officer runs back toward the place where the initial scuffle occurred and picks up something from the ground and drops it near Scott’s body.
As The Times noted on Tuesday, police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Scott. But the video suggests that they were in no rush to help. For several minutes after the shooting, the mortally wounded man remained facedown with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on medical gloves and attends to Scott but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens are heard, a third officer arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but he also is not seen performing CPR. Stunned by Scott’s death, a brother is left to ask: “How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?”
Slager was charged with murder on Tuesday and subsequently fired by the North Charleston Police Department. The swiftness of the charge was encouraging. The FBI and the Justice Department, which has opened several civil rights investigations into police departments under Attorney General Eric Holder, is also investigating. On its face, the officer’s conduct seems inconsistent with rulings by the Supreme Court, which has held that officers can use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”Police departments all over the country clearly need to do a better job of training on how to de-escalate encounters with citizens and explaining when and how deadly force can be used. To get a handle on this problem, Congress must compel local police departments to report to the Justice Department all instances in which officers are fired upon or fire their own weapons at citizens. During the 1990s, Congress enacted legislation that was intended to aid the collection of data on officer-involved shootings. But many local governments do not provide the data because reporting it is optional. Holder was on the mark in January when he described this state of affairs as “unacceptable.”
Better tracking of shooting data is, of course, important. But states and local governments need to understand that the growing outrage over wrongful death cases, like the one in North Charleston, undermines trust in law enforcement and presents a clear danger to the civic fabric. The country needs to confront this issue directly and get this problem under control.
Shooting video shows why tension persists on policing and race
The tensions that arise when unarmed black men are killed by police just won’t go away. Rarely are the incidents caught on video, and rarely are police criminally charged.
This time is different. If you haven’t seen the video, you should.
A North Charleston, S.C., officer is now charged with murder for coldly shooting Walter Lamar Scott in the back. Scott, who is black, was stopped for a broken taillight on Saturday. Scott ran off, and Officer Michael Slager, who is white, chased him firing his Taser, according to the report the officer filed. But the killing was captured on video by a bystander.
Slager is seen firing several shots from about 15 to 20 feet away – hitting Scott in the back. Slager handcuffed a dead or dying Scott before walking back to where the incident began. He retrieved what may have been the Taser he claimed Scott had taken from him and dropped it near the prone body. The officer provided no medical assistance.
This began as a routine traffic stop. Scott was unarmed. It was broad daylight. On the video, Slager’s life does not appear to be threatened. Nor was the safety of anyone else.
According to relatives, Scott, 50, owed child support and may have run to avoid going to jail for the arrears. He didn’t run very fast and didn’t look like he could have gone very far. What’s more, Slager had Scott’s car and license plate number. If he didn’t already have Scott’s name and address, he could have gotten that from motor vehicle records and apprehended him at his home.
More evidence might surface to change perceptions of events, but the video underscores a distillation of the sort of unjustified use of deadly force and disregard for black life claimed in many other police shootings. Under murkier circumstances, those claims most often fall on deaf ears.
In this case, it’s clear why Slager was charged with murder and fired from his job. It’s also clear why policing and race is an issue the nation must confront and resolve.