A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser.
That’s why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer’s attorney said Monday.
Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force, lawyer David Aylor said in a statement.
“This is a very tragic event for all of the families,” Aylor said. “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”
Monday’s developments filled in some of the blanks in what was South Carolina’s 11th police shooting of the year. Authorities publicly identified Slager, an officer with the city since December 2009, and gave his reason for the traffic stop that led to the fatal confrontation. Police documents also revealed that Slager announced within seconds why he had fired.
“Shots fired, and the subject is down,” he said into his radio, according to an incident report. “He took my Taser.”
Walter Lamer Scott, 50, of Meadowlawn Drive in West Ashley died soon after the encounter near Craig Street and Remount Road.
He has been arrested about 10 times in his lifetime, mostly for failure to appear for court hearings and to pay child support.
The only indicator of violence in his past came with his first arrest in 1987 on an assault and battery charge.
Slager, 33, served honorably in the military before joining the North Charleston Police Department more than five years ago, Aylor said.
He has never been disciplined during his time on the force, the attorney added.
Slager was on a boarding team when he served in the Coast Guard in Port Canaveral, Fla., his personnel file showed. The 91 pages of documents were released Monday after The Post and Courier filed a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request.
He passed courses on how to use the Taser X26 when he was hired in North Charleston and performed well on shooting tests with his .45-caliber Glock 21. Supervisors indicated in performance reviews that he met expectations as an officer and kept a tidy patrol car.
Of the two complaints in his file, one dealt with a resident’s allegation of unnecessary use of force.
Slager went to the man’s Delaware Avenue home in September 2013 to investigate a burglary. When the resident opened the door for Slager, the burglary victim yelled that he wasn’t the suspect, the documents stated.
The man also insisted that he wasn’t the perpetrator, but he later told internal investigators that Slager threatened to use a Taser against him if he didn’t come outside. When the man followed the order and stepped outside, he said Slager “Tased (him) for no reason and ... slammed him and dragged him.”
But another officer there said Slager had been forced to use the device during a struggle. The investigators exonerated Slager of wrongdoing.
Slager will keep working during a State Law Enforcement Division investigation into whether Saturday’s shooting was justified, but Pryor said he would be on administrative duty.
While the police released Slager’s file, one lawmaker said the episode again points out the need for body-mounted cameras whose footage can stave off community speculation.
The city is expected to get 115 of the devices through $275,000 in state funding for that and other anti-crime initiatives.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said it can’t come soon enough. Gilliard has authored legislation to require police agencies to outfit their officers with cameras. As an alternative, he also offered a bill calling for a study of such programs. But he expressed frustration because the measures had not advanced.
“People will say I’m using this (shooting) as a springboard,” he said. “But I’ve said these types of incidents will continue, and when they do, it’s going to be unfortunate that we are not using modern-day technology to stop the speculation and rumors.”
The authorities have not said whether anyone else saw Slager’s struggle with Scott.
No one called Charleston County’s 911 Center after the gunfire, and Slager’s communications with dispatchers will not be made public until SLED approves it, county spokeswoman Natalie Hauff said.
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said prosecutors also would have to review the recordings and be “agreeable and amenable” to their release.
North Charleston community leaders have mentioned the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in urging residents not to grow violent in light of Scott’s death. But, like Missouri police said of Brown, Slager saw Scott as a threat when the officer decided to pull the trigger.
Around 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Slager noticed a Mercedes-Benz sedan with a brake light that was “out and not working,” the police spokesman said. He stopped his cruiser behind the sedan that had pulled into Advance Auto Parts at 1945 Remount Road.
“What started out as a routine traffic stop quickly escalated after the driver fled,” Slager’s attorney said.
Scott ran down Craig Road, which parallels the store’s parking lot and stretches southward toward the Singing Pines community. A passenger in his car stayed put.
Slager told other officers through his radio that he had gotten into a foot chase, according to the report. The police have not given details about the confrontation that followed behind the Mega Pawn shop at 5654 Rivers Ave.
But with other officers on the way to help, Slager announced on his radio that he had “deployed” his Taser, according to the report. But it didn’t work.
The statement from Slager’s attorney, though, did not say that Slager actually fired the device. Aylor said he could not offer further clarification until the officer talks with investigators.
“When confronted, Officer Slager reached for his Taser — as trained by the department — and then a struggle ensued,” Aylor said. “The driver tried to overpower Officer Slager in an effort to take his Taser.”
Seconds later, the report added, he radioed that the suspect wrested control of the device. Even with the Taser’s prongs deployed, the device can still be used as a stun gun to temporarily incapacitate someone.
Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon,” his attorney added.
The report indicated that Slager fired multiple times, but it was not specific.
Backup officers did first aid and CPR on Scott until paramedics showed up. But Scott was pronounced dead.
Loved ones have said that Scott was a family man who recently got engaged. They insisted that he wasn’t violent.
His most serious arrests came decades ago, according to his SLED rap sheet.
County police officers arrested him in 1987 on a charge of assault and battery, and he was convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon.
Ten years passed before he was arrested twice in 2001 on contempt charges. He would face several similar charges occasionally during the next decade until his last arrest in 2012.
He also had convictions from 2008 for driving under suspension and having an open alcohol container in his car.
Anthony Scott met with the police near the scene soon after his brother was shot. The report did not specify, though, whether he had been the passenger in the Mercedes.
The police took his cellphone as evidence. The next day, he promised in a public statement to find out the truth about what happened.
Dave Munday contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.