Over the weekend I wrote about how complicated and far reaching the damage might be if a South Carolina jury was unable to come up with some sort of conviction in the trial of Michael Slager. As I’m sure you know by now, that scenario has come to pass. I maintain hope that this is a temporary situation, as the case will be tried again, but the deadlocked jury has already sent ripples of unrest around the country along with the fear that more is coming.
I’ve taken some time to digest these events and still find myself unsettled, but I can completely appreciate at least some of the thoughts and observations offered by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic. While I obviously don’t agree with him chapter and verse, his frustration is totally understandable to me and in at least this passage he strikes on part of what we should all find very troubling, even if our reasons for being uneasy travel along different paths.
To stack the deck against unarmed citizens who get shot is absurd.
Yet even operating under a standard in which police officers get the benefit of every reasonable doubt, it seems hard to understand why Slager and Tensing wouldn’t have been convicted of manslaughter. The fact that neither was convicted is the latest evidence that the system as it now exists does not reliably punish cops for even egregious killings.
The policy debate around policing has lately focused on the tactics and rhetoric of Black Lives Matter (while mostly ignoring its excellent Campaign Zero roadmap for policy reform). Whatever conservatives think of Black Lives Matter, it is long past time that more of them join with libertarians and liberals in an effort to address this problem: Armed agents of the state are killing American citizens at rates far higher than other developed countries, and even when videos show them killing unarmed individuals, some are somehow getting away with it.
I’ll get back to that in a moment, but Conor does us another service by pointing to an essay on the same subject from Scott Greenfield. As with Conor’s piece, there is much that I disagree with in Greenfield’s entry, but on the question of why we treat police differently in a court of law and understanding their unique place in society, he really rings the bell with this passage. The first paragraph here is especially haunting but appropriate.
People need to believe in cops. It’s an irrational belief, borne of their own compulsion to make sense of the world, because if an otherwise ordinary police officer had a random killer hiding beneath his badge, there would be nothing to stand between our desire for safety and the insanity of random violence that could take our life, our children’s lives, for no reason at any moment. It would be like living in The Purge, and no one would ever be able to sleep at night if that was the case.
But as Elie says, the failure to convict in this case, with this evidence, rips our comfort blanket of civility from our clutches. Whether it’s because Walter Scott was black or Michael Slager was a cop isn’t clear. What is clear is that any result other than guilt in this case tells us the system is a failure and we are left to our own devices to survive.
In my mind this all circles back to the question Conor posed, though it’s one which may never be answered. Why did that one juror hold out? Was that person a racist? I suppose it’s possible, but the more disturbing possibility is that the reason was actually the one I alluded to in my last column and which Friedersdorf raises as well: perhaps some people simply can’t believe that a cop would be that far in the wrong. Or, even believing it rationally, couldn’t bring themselves to point a finger and say, you must pay for your sins.
Leaving the juror aside for a moment, let’s consider the second question: why did Walter Scott run? This spurred me to consider my own impulses and worldview this week. Being an older, white guy from precisely the background you’d probably imagine for someone writing at this site, I know my own innate biases and can predict my reactions fairly well. If I were walking in that South Carolina neighborhood and I saw someone who looked like Walther Scott dressed in civilian clothes, running up on me and yelling something, I would immediately drop into fight or flight mode. (A decision which would likely depend on how well armed I was.)
But if I saw Michael Slager charging toward me shouting orders I would immediately follow his instructions, assuming we could sort it all out later. If Slager then pulled out a gun and shot me I imagine my last earthly thoughts would be of confusion and disbelief, as something completely unimaginable would have happened.
I wonder if those were Walter Scott’s last thoughts as the bullets ripped into his back. Was he in shocked disbelief that he was about to die? Or did he grow up in a world where he simply assumed his odds of survival once the confrontation with Officer Slager turned physical were slim at best so he thought he’d take a shot at escape? This is a dark train of thought but one you might want to ponder.
This brings us back to the question of the difficulty of putting cops on trial. My logical brain tells me that of course there are bad cops out there. They are mercifully rare in the extreme, but police are human beings and every once in a while a bad one will slip through. But do we still hesitate to hold them to account when they cross over to the dark side? And should we be at least as vigorous in pursuing prosecution as with anyone else as Conor says, or perhaps even more so?
There’s an old saying attributed to Carl Sagan (though perhaps it should probably be more fairly credited to Marcello Truzzi) which tells us that an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof. I bring this up because there’s a double edged sword in this accepted wisdom when we apply it to police shootings. There are so few police officers who turn out to actually be homicidal maniacs hiding behind a badge that any assertion of lurking evil on their part is something of an extraordinary claim. As such, we need at least a fair bit more than word of mouth before we convict one of them. And because of that they do earn the benefit of the doubt which Friedersdorf references.
But by the same token, if you meet that burden of extraordinary proof (such as with the video of Slager gunning down Walter Scott) there is another accepted maxim which comes to mind. With great power comes great responsibility. And to expand on that for increased accuracy we could more correctly substitute the word accountability for “responsibility.” Law enforcement officers are rightly (in my opinion) vested with almost unimaginable power in American society. They keep and bear arms not only for self defense, but for the defense of others. They are tasked with locating and pursuing suspected criminals and in the line of duty they can exercise extraordinary power over others. On their good word – which is, to be frank, given more weight than that of rank and file citizens in court – they can set the stage for taking away people’s freedom. In a violent or potentially violent confrontation they can injure or, yes, even kill someone. And in doing so they will be given far more leeway by default than anyone else. And because of that, if they are found to have abused that power they must be held to account even more severely than any of the hoi polloi who might commit a similar transgression. Otherwise we risk that dystopian world which Greenfield described. And that’s precisely why a failure to convict Michael Slager is so damaging, even beyond the havoc wreaked on Walter Scott and his family.
As to what happened on Scott’s last day I have my own views and I am admittedly operating on nothing more than speculation here. I do not believe that Michael Slager woke up that day with a hankering to go out and kill anyone, and certainly not a specific plan to execute Walter Scott. Even at the time of the traffic stop I don’t believe there was any malice in his heart. As the brief chase and initial struggle played out (assuming it happened as we are told), I think Slager grew increasingly frustrated and angry at Scott and might have been inclined to teach him a lesson, but still not to kill him. But then, after the fight over the taser, I think that Slager crossed the Rubicon in his mind. He’d had enough with the suspect’s impudence and failure to follow his orders, going so far as to physically challenge him. Slager knew the power he had over life and death and in a moment of rage he decided to exercise it, figuring that if he dropped the discarded taser by Scott’s body his word would be taken as gospel and he’d get away with it. And if there hadn’t been someone standing nearby with a cell phone camera he probably would have.
If I’m right, Michael Slager didn’t begin this encounter with the same sort of premeditated evil in his heart that an assassin or other violent criminal might. It probably formed in only the last few moments. But form it did. And because of the nature of his position in society and the power he was entrusted with, that makes his crime as much of a murder as any other.
As I said, that’s simply my conclusion from watching the events unfold. But it doesn’t change the end result as so many of us seem to have interpreted it. If we can’t get a conviction in this case the damage that’s been done will extend far beyond the borders of South Carolina.