It’s time to Break It Down!
This past Saturday, North Charleston, South Carolina became the next Ground Zero for what is rapidly becoming the new normal…a law enforcement officer killing an unarmed black man. The very mention of this topic has become so sensitized that it needs to be preceded by a disclaimer. I have one; here it is: There are many ethical policemen and women, and other law enforcement officers who execute their professional duties and responsibilities to the highest standard expected and deserved by the public, in accordance with their oath, and consistent with every element of their job description. I believe that to be the unequivocal, unimpeachable truth.
Having stipulated that, there are too many officers who do not observe or comply with the aforementioned standards. On March 4th, just five weeks ago, I wrote about the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department, an entity that was exposed by a Department of Justice (DOJ) Report as a perennial rogue agency that preyed upon African Americans, a demographic segment of the community that just happen to account for two-thirds of the population, but only about 8% of the police department.
In Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown resulted in a series of events that included riots and looting, nationwide attention, and two federal investigations, among other things. While many observers took solace in the fact that one of the two DOJ Reports did not result in finding that Officer Darren Wilson violated Michael Brown’s civil rights, a second report uncovered a repugnant picture of injustice against African Americans that included, but was not limited to the following:
- Blacks account for 85% of traffic stops
- Blacks account for 90% of tickets issued
- Blacks account for 93% of arrests
- Blacks account for 95% of jaywalking arrests (which often hinge on police discretion)
- Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops, but 26% less likely to have contraband
- Blacks account for 88% of persons against whom force was used
In North Charleston, a completely different fact pattern appears to be emerging. First, amazingly, there is a video; no doubt, one that paints, or more aptly, depicts a compelling picture of the events that unfolded when North Charleston Patrolman First Class Michael Slager, 33, stopped Walter Scott, 50, for a broken taillight. The video (which can be seen in one of the links below), captured by an observer who happened to be in the vicinity, shows that Officer Slager shot Mr. Scott up to eight times, in the back. The video also, importantly, highlights what may be key inconsistencies in the officer’s story.
Slager asserted in the official police report that Scott tried to obtain his Taser and use it against him. He added, as is common verbiage in such cases, that he feared for his life. He initially stated through his attorney at the time, David Aylor, that he followed appropriate policies and procedures. Not having been present at the scene, I will not deign to contradict, or even interpret what emotion(s) Officer Slager experienced, due to or during the encounter.
Whether it was fear, or anger…or something else, I do not know. I am aware of what the video shows. Mr. Scott is fleeing, and Officer Slager is firing…multiple shots. He also appears to have “planted” his Taser near Scott’s body. Mr. Aylor told CNN he no longer represents Officer Slager. This case may be many things, but what it is not is an episode hinging upon unconfirmed reports of whether Scott was charging toward the officer, or if he stopped with his hands up, pleading to the officer, “Don’t shoot.”
Mr. Scott’s family has communicated two basic desires, early in the investigative process. First, they maintain, they want to find out the truth. Anthony Scott, Walter’s brother, had the following to say on Sunday afternoon:
“We just would like for justice to be taken, for justice to be served, and we would like for the truth to come out so my brother can rest in peace. Whatever happened yesterday, that’s all we want is the truth, and we will go to any length to get it.”
Second, they want this situation to be the anti-Ferguson. The family met Sunday in an empty lot where the shooting had occurred the day before. The held a press conference with community activists, calling for community calm and law enforcement transparency during the process of the investigation.
But it is not just the family’s urging that stands out, as events unfold after the North Charleston incident. Actually, Michael Brown’s family called for calm to, so it may be unfair to suggest there is anything different about that aspect of this shooting. However, that may be where similarities end.
Yesterday afternoon, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced during a news conference that Officer Slager has been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of Walter Scott. The mayor indicated the video, which must be deemed powerfully corroborative, has been sent to Mr. Scott’s family, and to the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Local officials’ decision to bring charges against the officer was heavily influenced by the video. Police Chief Eddie Driggers said the video shows Officer Slager shooting Mr. Scott as he was running away from the scene. According to Mayor Summey:
“As a result of that video and bad decisions made by our officer, he will be charged with murder,”
Chief Driggers, speaking with CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront,” called it “A tragic day.” He went on to say city leaders have been in contact with Mr. Scott’s family’s pastor, and that the city has been an open book with investigators. When asked if race played a part in the incident, Chief Driggers, who is white, would not rule it out.
When asked a similar question, L. Chris Stewart, an attorney for the family was somewhat more direct. He said:
“This is a bigger issue of human life and the value of it, and when people start respecting that more it won’t matter what color you are.”
The Mayor called the video “very demonstrative,” and said it would have been difficult to resolve the issue without it. He noted that Scott was hit with the officer’s Taser, and they know that because one of the Taser projectiles was still attached.
U.S. Senator Tim Scott, South Carolina, posted about the case on his Twitter account. He said:
“After watching the video, the senseless shooting and taking of #WalterScott’s life was absolutely unnecessary and avoidable. My heart aches for the family and our North Charleston community. I will be watching this case closely.” No word on whether the Senator, who is African American, is related to Mr. Scott.
According to SLED records, Officer Slager was booked at the Charleston County Detention Center, and the case will be prosecuted by the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office. The South Carolina Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has opened a concurrent investigation, and is providing assistance as necessary to the State’s investigation. The DOJ Civil Rights Division and the South Carolina U.S. Attorney’s Office will work with the FBI in the investigation. The DOJ has committed to take appropriate action in light of the evidence and developments in the case.
There is an inherent sadness about finding our society in this position, once again. Yet, it is fair to say, it is possible to learn from mistakes of the past, and as I like to insert, they do not all have to be one’s own mistakes. Officials in North Charleston seem to be students of recent history. They saw or read about the events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and elsewhere, and they decided when faced with a similar tragedy, they did not have to repeat the mistakes made in some of those jurisdictions.
They did not wait or hide behind a Grand Jury, a la Ferguson, they did not try to stifle the video, as in New York, and they did not await a federal investigation, as in Cleveland. There are still investigations to unfold, and a trial to ensue. As such, there is still time and an opportunity for things to unravel.
However, based on the “First 48,” as the saying goes, there is legitimate hope that justice will be served. That is what the Scott family asked for, and what the true creed of our society demands. With that in mind, we may take a calculatingly cold look at the facts… “Another Officer in Fear for His Life: Another Black Man Down,” and recognize, for once at least, we may actually be confronted by real progress. It is after all worth noting that North Charleston is not only in South Carolina, but just miles from the Port of Charleston, and the Old Slave Market. I enthusiastically extend kudos to Mayor Summey, Chief Driggers, and the citizens of North Charleston.
I’m done; holla back!
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