North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager has been charged with the murder of Walter Scott. We’ll see if he gets convicted, and if so, of what charge. Obviously, this is a tragedy. Scott should be busy planning his wedding. And it certainly seems that Slager is guilty. So the criminal justice system works! Hooray! But I don’t see it that way.
Let’s start with the fact that somehow Slager thought that it was proper to shoot eight bullets at the back of Scott while he ran away. How is it that police officers — who we are told ad nauseam are such highly trained professionals — so often don’t seem to have a clue about the law? It seems that in our police departments, the philosophy is: the police are always right and any civilian who doesn’t do exactly what an officer wants deserves to die.
But what bothers me about this case is that if it weren’t for the video recording of the stop, there would be no story. It would just be yet another case when a police officer was fully justified in using deadly force against an unarmed civilian. It appears in America, the only way you have a chance at justice is if you have a gang of people following you around surreptitiously filming you.
The Daily Beast published an interesting article, Michael Slager’s Attorney Dumped Him As Soon As He Saw Video. The lawyer is cagey because he can’t break attorney-client privilege. But reading between the lines, it seems that what he’s saying is that Slager lied to him in a way that the video made very clear.
What I find most striking about the video is how unreal it seems. The officer shows no emotion. And then, after Scott is bleeding on the ground, there is no rush to get help. It seems like just another day — nothing to get especially excited about.
The mystery in the video is the way that Slager picks up something from the ground where he shot from and casually drops it next to Scott body. Speculation is that it had to do with the taser. Regardless, it would seem that Slager is tampering with the crime scene. And the other officer doesn’t say a thing. Again: just another day on the job.
According to Bustle, Slager had a pretty clean employment record. There was, however, one incident reported “in September 2013 by a man who alleged that Slager had ‘shot him with a taser for no reason.’ The matter was subsequently investigated internally, and Slager was exonerated of any wrongdoing.” Of course, that goes without saying; there was no video of the incident and in this country, we always assume that the police are honest — despite a mountain of evidence indicating that this isn’t true.
Here is a summary of the official story the police department told before the video surfaced:
This might all be technically true. Nowhere in it does it say that Slager had to resort to his service weapon. The video is consistent with Scott grabbing the taser. But very clearly, Scott is running away while Slager is drawing his gun. And slowly, he aims and kills Scott. There are two circumstances under with an officer can use deadly force. The first is when someone’s life is in danger. That’s clearly not the case here. The second is when the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect has “committed a serious violent felony.” That doesn’t seem to be the case either; though we can be certain that Slager will argue just that, “He grabbed my taser!” And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if a jury accepts that excuse.
The main thing is that this case is exceptional in that we have evidence that the officer and the department were at least being deceptive. The statement above was designed to give an incorrect impression about what had happened. But that is not exceptional. I’m sure that happens all the time. And I fear that after officers are all wearing body cameras, there will be lots of cases where the cameras don’t work or were accidentally turned off. We are a very long way from holding our police forces accountable.
Update (10 April 2015 10:07 pm)