Officer discretion plays significant role in police training, authorities say

One thing is obvious. Cellphone footage that showed a North Charleston officer firing eight shots toward a man’s back as he fled from a traffic stop last week did not adhere to the lessons taught at the state Criminal Justice Academy, said Florence McCants, a spokeswoman for the agency.

She added, however, that policies regarding the use of force are mostly determined by individual law enforcement agencies across the state, not the academy.

Officers are taught that they are allowed to defend themselves at “one step above the present threat” in order to maintain control if they do find themselves in danger, according to McCants.

“If someone comes at you with a knife, then you’re justified in pulling your firearm,” she said.

But that decision, and many others that contribute toward the outcome of routine traffic stops, are based largely on the discretion of the officer, she said.

“There is no one standard that is the procedure of each individual call,” McCants said.

Walter Scott, a 50-year-old father of four and former member of the Coast Guard, died facedown at the scene of the shooting April 4 on North Charleston’s Craig Road. He was struck four times by bullets in his back and one in his ear, authorities said.

Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, the 33-year-old officer charged in the slaying, remains at the Charleston County jail accused of murder. The felony charge carries a penalty of 30 years to life in prison.

Slager fired the fatal shots after Scott dashed away from a traffic stop on Remount Road, possibly for fear of going to jail for owing more than $18,000 in back child support, authorities said.

If a person runs during a stop, McCants said, the officer isn’t required to pursue him.

“You’ve got a lot of nuances that come into play,” she said. “You can give chase. You can call for backup. If you’re familiar with that person and can identify them or apprehend them at a later time, you can do that, as well.”

Slager decided to chase after Scott before firing his service weapon at the man. The officer reported to dispatchers that he used his service weapon only after Scott grabbed his Taser and attempted to use it against him.

The decision to fire, too, is based largely on an officer’s judgment, McCants said, “whether they feel as though their life is in jeopardy or the life of others. There is no clear-cut answer.”

Based on the cellphone video of Scott’s death, however, it did not appear as though Slager was in immediate danger at the time the shots were fired, she said.

“Clearly, what you saw in the video is not what we teach,” she said.

If Scott did grab for Slager’s Taser during a scuffle, one could argue that the officer feared for his life in that moment, said Norman Rose, an associate professor of sociology at Kent University. Rose once lived in North Charleston and he has 30 years of experience in corrections, 10 of which were spent as a prison warden, he said.

“You could argue a Taser is a lethal weapon, because so many people are dying from being Tased,” he said.

But, he added, the situation could have been resolved without a death had Slager “had the decency not to shoot” when Scott was no longer a threat.

It’s possible Slager followed through with the gunfire, Rose said, due to a failure in police training.

“They train you to use deadly force. They don’t teach you to stop using deadly force. ... You’re to protect your life first, and once you decide to use justifiable, deadly force, you’re told to carry it through,” he said.

North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor did not respond to questions about the department’s policy regarding the use of deadly force.

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