For months, much of the public formed its opinion of Michael Slager from a video of the North Charleston police officer shooting a black man in the back.
That’s unfair, his relatives, friends and fellow officers said in letters recently revealed through an open-records request, and it fails to account for his true qualities. In 60 pages of writings, they sought to portray the 34-year-old as a loving husband, a doting father and a “go-to” lawman who always kept his cool.
All told, 39 people, including 15 current and former North Charleston officers, voiced support for Slager, who is charged with murder in Walter Scott’s April 4 shooting death. To critics, their portrayal contrasts sharply with past allegations of unjust force by Slager and portions of the bystander’s video that made him known to the world. But to Slager’s supporters, his actions last spring coincide with their views of him but were misinterpreted in the public.
“The media has portrayed Michael as a very cold and uncaring person,” his mother, Karen Sharpe, said in a letter. “This couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Slager’s defense team sent the documents to a judge in September to bolster a plea for bail. Circuit Judge Clifton Newman denied it at first before allowing his release last month. Newman agreed to make the filings public under The Post and Courier’s S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.
No supervisors said they noticed any concerning signs during Slager’s time on the job. Rather, he was admired by fellow patrolmen and seen as a calming influence when other officers’ emotions got the best of them. Superiors said they would rely on him for important tasks, such as tracking down a suspected rapist thought to be posing a threat to children.
“I observed Michael make sound, well-thought-out decisions during any situation — whether routine or that of a higher stress level,” a shift commander wrote. “He was often the go-to guy for his teammates when they had questions or needed guidance.”
Attorney Justin Bamberg, who represents Scott’s family, acknowledged that Slager was entitled to a defense that presents any history or traits that may have played a role in the officer’s decision-making that day.
“I don’t believe that all of these things coming out in regards to his character lessen the severity of what he did,” Bamberg said. “We all saw what he did, and we don’t doubt it was a wholly unjustified shooting.”
During childhood, Slager taught his two younger sisters how to do bicycle tricks and use a rope swing, they wrote in the letters.
“I never once worried he would do anything but what was right,” his oldest sister said. “He is generous, compassionate and funny.”
The son of an Army captain, he learned early the value of public service, his father wrote. After volunteering as a paramedic in his native New Jersey, he joined the Coast Guard. He used to tell his parents about saving manatees and guarding space shuttles in Florida.
When he landed the job at the North Charleston Police Department, two of his Coast Guard superiors saw his departure as a loss, they wrote. But his police cohorts would see his service as a benefit.
“He finally got to live his dream and continue serving people,” a fellow police academy graduate wrote. “He swore the same oath as I and has lived by that oath.”
Whether helping stranded motorists or calming irate citizens, the soft-spoken officer was deft at de-escalating situations, his fellow lawmen wrote.
Three lieutenants, three sergeants, one captain and a detective were among the 13 current North Charleston officers who wrote to the judge. A Mount Pleasant police officer also chimed in.
They never saw Slager lose his temper or show racial bias, they wrote, and he often warned motorists instead of ticketing them. He built a reputation as a peacemaker. A former patrolman recalled growing angry at a suspect’s yelling and cursing.
“Mike stepped in, calmed the situation down and pulled me to the side to (defuse) my anger,” he wrote. “Mike is level-headed like that.”
After reviewing memos involving Slager, a captain wrote that none of his past actions as an officer were cause to be “overly concerned.”
Slager had activated his Taser 12 times in his career. One instance prompted an excessive force complaint. Internal investigators absolved him, but the complaint and two other allegations of abuse were raised again last year, prompting three lawsuits.
But to his colleagues, Slager was the one to usually stop questionable actions, one officer wrote.
“If I had a question regarding the law or department policy, I would go to Mike,” a former detective said. “On several occasions, I personally saw Mike telling younger officers that they were outside of policy and to stop their actions.”
His personal life, meanwhile, shifted dramatically.
He met his future wife, Jamie, a single mother struggling to support her two children. Slager put her through school, and she found a new career as a dental assistant. He also became a dad to her children.
“He is always there when my dad has not been,” his oldest stepchild, 14, wrote.
He worked off-duty jobs to take the family on a cruise. He got the kids a pug named Bowzer, his youngest stepchild said.
“My children and I are in a better place because of Mike and his huge heart,” his wife wrote.
His wife struggled to get pregnant until her latest attempt at in vitro fertilization worked. Slager started applying for jobs elsewhere to be closer to his family. But his son would be born while Slager was behind bars.
On April 4, he stopped Scott’s car because of a broken brake light. His attorney, Andy Savage, said the officer’s actions that day “were wholly consistent with the character letters.”
Video from Slager’s cruiser showed him “reacting in a calm and professional manner” when Scott first got out of the car, Savage said. When Scott jumped out again and ran, Slager gave chase and used his Taser to stop Scott.
His lawyer said most members of the public missed the shaky, blurry start of the bystander’s video that showed the two men fighting on the ground “with Scott eventually getting an upper hand and taking possession of Slager’s Taser.”
Still images from this part of the footage show a blurry mix of Slager’s uniform and Scott’s green T-shirt. It’s difficult for a viewer to tell what’s happening.
But Bamberg, the Scott family lawyer, said Slager’s next move wasn’t a professional response. The video showed the two getting up, the stun gun hitting the ground and Slager firing eight times as Scott ran away.
A jury is expected to decide Slager’s fate in an October trial.
“When that first shot was fired, Walter posed a threat to absolutely nobody,” Bamberg said. “And there’s nothing that can change that fact. Nothing.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.