Dash video strikes at heart of problem, critics of police say

Walter Scott runs from his vehicle Saturday after being stopped by Officer Michael Slager in this still photo taken from a recently released SLED video from the on-board camera of the police vehicle.

To people who have long lamented aggressive policing tactics in North Charleston, a video showing a police officer stopping Walter L. Scott’s car strikes at the heart of their plight.

Two brake lights on the Mercedes-Benz were working when Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager pulled it over, according the dashboard camera footage released Thursday.

Police officials have said that Slager made the stop because one of Scott’s brake lights was out.

It was a third brake light behind the back window of the 1990 Mercedes 300E that wasn’t working, the video showed.

Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, recalled a police forum a few years ago when officers explained that they can, by law, pull over a car with a bad third light.

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled more than a decade ago that while only one brake light is required on a vehicle, all of them must work if the vehicle has more than one.

To longtime critics of the North Charleston Police Department, the number of brake lights on the car isn’t the issue. Those critics, like Bryant, have said that stops for minor traffic violations have unfairly targeted poor, predominately black communities. Bryant himself has been stopped for a bad third light on his Honda, he said Thursday.

“There is a tremendous effect on the citizens of color when it comes to stops like this,” Bryant said. “That’s just what North Charleston does. But to get killed for it? No.”

Scott ran from the car and got into a confrontation with Slager seconds later. When Scott broke, the officer shot him in the back. A video of the shooting led to Slager’s arrest earlier this week on a murder charge.

The release of the dash video, which The Post and Courier obtained through a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request, came on a day when an attorney for Scott’s family said he planned to file a civil rights lawsuit against Slager and the Police Department.

But there was no indication what role the footage might play in that, Atlanta lawyer Chris Stewart said. Any racial component also depends on what Stewart finds out in an investigation. The suit likely will focus on Slager’s training and police practices, he said.

After the State Law Enforcement Division released the dash video, its chief, Mark Keel, publicly addressed the investigation for the first time by saying agents had already grown suspicious of Slager’s account from what they saw at the shooting scene and from Scott’s wounds.

The agents reported their concerns to Keel within a few hours of Scott’s death, Keel said in a statement.

“We believed early on that there was something not right,” he said. “The cellphone video shot by a bystander confirmed our initial suspicions.”

But the examination of videos, forensic evidence and interviews “raises more questions and issues to investigate,” Keel said without specifying. Those interviews included one of Slager.

“I understand many people still have questions, and so do we,” he said.

To legal experts, the one-hour dash video shows what appears to be a properly conducted traffic stop. But for community members with those lingering questions, it leaves a gap between the stop and the bystander’s footage of the shooting.

Slager has said that Scott took control of his Taser during a struggle and that he was afraid that Scott would use it against him. The bystander has said in news media interviews that the two fought for the device on the ground.

“I didn’t see anything questionable about the activities on that tape,” Charlie Condon, a former South Carolina attorney general, said of the dash video. “(Scott’s) flight on foot would certainly be enough reason to chase him. But the conduct that happened in the second video would constitute murder under our law.”

The video from Slager’s in-car camera begins at 9:32 a.m. Saturday as his cruiser catches up to Scott’s Mercedes at the Remount Road intersection.

Slager flips on his cruiser’s blue light when two of the Mercedes’ three brake lights illuminate at a railroad crossing.

Scott quickly pulls into the parking lot of Advance Auto Parts at Remount and Craig roads.

After their cars stop, Slager walks up to Scott’s window. A passenger, who has not been identified by authorities, is seen in the front seat and would stay there.

“The reason for the stop, sir,” Slager tells Scott, “is your brake light’s out.”

When Slager asks for registration and insurance papers, Scott tells him that he doesn’t have the documents. Scott was in the process of buying the vehicle, he tells the officer.

“I haven’t bought it yet,” Scott says. “I’m about to do that Monday.

“You don’t have any paperwork in the glovebox?” Slager asks.

“No, sir.”

“All right,” Slager says. “I’ll be right back with you.”

While Slager checks Scott’s identity in his cruiser, the driver of the Mercedes gets out and runs.

Slager announces into his police radio that he is in a foot pursuit.

“Taser. Taser. Taser,” Slager shouts seconds later.

The audio from Slager’s body-worn microphone, which is linked wirelessly to the camera, picks up static after that, as if the two men are struggling.

Meanwhile, the microphone in Slager’s car picks up a song on his radio: Everlast’s “What It’s Like.”

“He pulled out his Chrome .45,” the song goes, “talked some (expletive) and wound up dead.”

At some point, Scott freed himself from the struggle and ran. Within moments, five .45-caliber bullet would hit him from behind.

Like Condon, Bryant, the local NAACP official, said he couldn’t fault what he saw on the dash video.

S.C. Supreme Court justices decided in 2001, while Condon served as attorney general, that a state trooper in Anderson County had probable cause to pull over Naim Jihad for a broken brake light. Jihad’s car contained 15 pounds of marijuana.

Jihad’s attorneys argued in front of the justices that state law requires only one brake light, making the stop unjust.

But while a statute requires only one brake light — some antique cars, for example, have only one — another states that all brake lights on a car must work.

To Condon, Slager’s reason for the stop lines up with the court’s view.

But Bryant recalled when residents and police officials addressed third brake lights during a police panel discussion. It happened shortly before a North Charleston police officer shot himself in July 2012 and blamed the attack on a black man.

“Well, they said they had a right to stop you,” Bryant said of the discussion. “That’s just the way it was going to be.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.