A bad cop in South Carolina

Yesterday, when I wrote about a police shooting in the northeast corner of Illinois, I received some of the same questions which always come up after the cops kill a suspect. Why, some readers ask, must you always defend the police? Why don’t you talk about the bad cops who act maliciously? In general, the answer has been that there are so many good cops and so few bad ones that they tend to merit the benefit of the doubt. But in nearly every one of these situations I have included the caveat that police forces are composed of fallible human beings and there are some bad ones out there. Unfortunately, we seem to have found one of them in South Carolina.

In the city of North Charleston there was an incident on Saturday in which a police officer shot a suspect in the back, claiming afterward that he “felt threatened” by Walter Scott. But a bystander with a cell phone camera captured the entire event and the officer has been arrested on murder charges after the video told a very different story.

A white North Charleston police officer was arrested on a murder charge after a video surfaced Tuesday of the lawman shooting eight times at a 50-year-old black man as the man ran away.

Walter L. Scott, a Coast Guard veteran and father of four, died Saturday after Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, 33, shot him in the back.

Five of the eight bullets hit Scott, his family’s attorney said. Four of those struck his back. One hit an ear.

The footage filmed by a bystander, which The Post and Courier obtained Tuesday from a source who asked to remain anonymous, shows the end of the confrontation between the two on Saturday after Scott ran from a traffic stop. It was the first piece of evidence contradicting an account Slager gave earlier this week through his attorney.

I won’t embed it here due to the graphic content, but the video is available at the link above. (Warning: Disturbing content which pretty clearly shows a murder taking place.) Officer Slager claimed initially that Scott had wrested his taser from him and was shot during the ensuing struggle, but the video tells a very different story. Scott was “fleeing” the officer, but very slowly with taser wires trailing from his body. He was between ten and twenty feet away when Slager unloaded his service weapon into him. Even more damning is the video footage showing the officer returning to where the struggle took place, picking something up (presumably the taser) and taking it over and dropping it next to Scott’s motionless and now handcuffed body. Finally, he reported that officers on the scene had tried every measure to resuscitate Walter Scott until paramedics arrived, but the video shows that they did little more than check for a pulse at one point. This paints a picture of not only an unjustifiable shooting, but what looks very much like an attempted coverup and falsifying official reports.

To compound matters, unlike the shooting in Illinois, this wasn’t some young guy speeding away into the community with an illegal handgun he had just purchased. It was a slow moving, fifty year old guy with a busted taillight and a bench warrant for some unpaid child support. I can’t picture a scenario where you justify unloading on this man.

To repeat, we do unfortunately have rare instances of bad cops out there who are uncovered from time to time. Officer Slager will get his day in court on very serious charges, but there seems to be little doubt that he falls into that category. As I’ve said ever since the Ferguson incident, there is a growing body of evidence which leads me to believe that having cameras on all police activities is probably a good idea. (For the record, North Charleston had funds approved this winter for body cameras for their police, but they’ve not been implemented yet.) In the majority of cases, such as the Michael Brown shooting, the cameras will probably indicate that good officers acted correctly. But in the rare case of a bad cop going outside the boundaries of the law – as we appear to have here – then those situations can be resolved as well.

Unfortunately, this incident will be run up the flagpole to build on the narrative that there are armies of racist, evil cops out there. It’s equally sad that essentially all of the media coverage – including the article linked above – still has to begin with “a white officer” and “a black suspect” since this would be an equally tragic story regardless of the race of the actors involved. That can’t be avoided, but the best thing that South Carolina can do at this point is to ensure that Officer Slager has a speedy, fair trial and, if found guilty, is punished appropriately. That’s the only thing that will maintain the credibility of the police and keep the system on track.