The video says so much it leaves the viewer speechless.
It captures a North Charleston, S.C., police officer firing eight bullets at a fleeing man and killing him. The officer is white. The fleeing man is black. There appears to be no reason for the shooting. The man, Walter Scott, 50, was running away. He hadn’t been involved in a serious crime. He’d been pulled over for a broken tail light. He might have fled because he feared being arrested for missed child support payments.
The video taken by a passerby is a damning indictment of the officer, Michael Thomas Slager. He was charged with murder and fired from the police department. It is also a powerful argument for the need for police officers to wear body cameras. They protect the public and officers alike.
The N.C. legislature should move quickly to support a body-camera bill offered by Rep. Edward Hanes Jr., a Forsyth County Democrat. The bill, HB537, has attracted bipartisan support. It seeks to put body cameras on about 60 percent of North Carolina officers by January 2017. The bill drops requirements contained in another Hanes proposal, HB395, that spells out how the cameras should be used and stored. Removing those mandates will help win support from law enforcement agencies.
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Spend what’s needed
Both bills would set aside $10 million over the next two years to help pay for the cameras and video storage. But that amount might have to be increased to ensure that the cameras become widely used and the images are properly retained. Money shouldn’t be an obstacle on this issue. These days, with the availability of lightweight video cameras, a video record of police encounters is essential to the defense of officers and the public. Dashboard cameras in police vehicles have shown their value. It’s a natural step to extend that recording capacity through body cameras.
More cameras would help, but they cannot eliminate the use of unnecessary force by officers. The North Charleston case was revealing not only for what it showed, but also for when it surfaced – a day after the shooting. In the period between, Officer Slager was claiming he fired after Scott took his stun gun, but the video shows Scott fleeing and the officer apparently dropping the stun gun next to Scott as he lay mortally wounded.
Video contradicts officer
If the video had not come to light, the shooting might have been found justified, and Slager could have remained on the force. The video shows not only a seemingly unnecessary shooting, but also that the officer may have to altered the crime scene to fit an inaccurate version of events. Slager was the subject of a previous complaint of excessive force involving use of his stun gun but was cleared. Now investigators ought to review all of his arrests.
It’s significant that the North Charleston shooting comes after months of debates about racially charged police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland and the choke-hold death of a man subdued by police on Staten Island, N.Y. It also follows a White House task force review of police tactics and how to reduce violent encounters between police and suspects. Had none of this news reached North Charleston? Has this debate had any effect on how some police behave at street-level?
Police departments across the country should be required to review police training regarding the use of violence and the use of their weapons. They must be reminded that they can take deadly action only when absolutely necessary for their own safety or the safety of the public. Police are armed for a reason. They can face life-threatening situations, but they also need to keep situations from escalating unnecessarily and to use their weapons only when there is no alternative.
And police departments need to screen officer candidates carefully and root out those who show signs of unnecessary use of force. The trust between the police and the public depends on it. Without that trust, police work only gets harder and more dangerous.