Feidin Santana is nervous as he combs through a rack of clothes searching for the perfect shirt.
It’s Wednesday, June 10, and the 23-year-old barber has been invited to attend a historic event: Gov. Nikki Haley’s signing of a bill that requires all law enforcement agencies to equip their officers with body cameras.
Video Santana captured of a North Charleston police officer shooting and killing Walter Scott as he fled in April spurred lawmakers into action, quickly advancing a bill that had languished in committees. Now, it was set to become law.
Yet the shy 23-year-old expresses concern about being invited. He’d rather TV folks not spot him, and jokes about needing a translator if someone shoves a camera in his face.
As a man whose family brought him to the States as a 14-year-old, Santana speaks English well but with an accent. It probably doesn’t help that he first landed in New York, where English is a second language in many neighborhoods.
Santana is also hesitant about attending the event because he knows he’s being hailed as a hero by many, including lawmakers who have honored him with a proclamation. But Santana insists he’s far from a hero. A man of faith, he believes he simply did what God would have wanted him to do — right a wrong.
“I thought long and hard about how this would affect my life,” Santana said in Spanish. “But from the start, when I took the decision to turn in this video, my vision was that it would trigger a positive change.”
Like the stories of most immigrants, Santana’s parents brought him to New York in search of a better life. But living in The Bronx among Hispanics from across Latin America was a culture shock for the Caribbean teen.
“You know, when I arrived, I was angry at Frank Sinatra because he never mentioned anything about how cold it is,” Santana said jokingly, referencing the song “New York, New York.”
Since then, Santana says he’s lived a bit of a nomad’s life, having moved to Newark, Ohio, and Atlanta before arriving in South Carolina. He worked as a painter, a carpenter, in restaurants as a server — “anything to earn a buck,” he said.
But he still frequented his native land and had recently come to the realization that he had not grown accustomed to life in the states. With his long-term girlfriend back at home and a 1-year-old son, Santana decided he’d return to the Dominican Republic this summer — permanently.
But God had a different plan for him, he said.
On the morning of April 4, Santana was walking to work when he spotted a commotion between two men. It was Scott, a black man who had ran from a traffic stop by then-North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager.
As Santana got closer, he noticed that the two were engaged in a struggle. Santana pressed the record button on his phone and continued to approach the two just in time to capture Scott taking off and Slager firing the eight shots that took Scott’s life.
Santana stuck around for a few more minutes, stunned by what he had just witnessed. After he stopped recording, he said he yelled at a few of the responding officers that he had video of what had just happened. But fearing for his safety — and with customers already waiting for him at the shop — Santana opted to leave the scene.
He discussed the existence of the video with those close to him. Santana knew that publicizing the video would cause a “scandal” and change his life forever. So he held on to it and waited for almost two days, after coming to an agreement with the Scotts that he would release the video if the police published a different account of what actually happened.
Which they did.
The Monday after the shooting, Slager, through his attorney, announced that he had felt threatened by Scott when he allegedly took Slager’s Taser. Slager said he had properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force.
That’s when Santana stepped in. He and the Scott family turned over the video to the State Law Enforcement Division, and by the next day Slager was being charged with murder.
Justin Bamberg, one of the attorneys who represent the Scott family, said he felt he was watching a movie when he first saw the video. Bamberg, who is also a lawmaker, said he never thought he’d see something that “egregious.”
“Santana was in the right place at the right time for justice,” Bamberg said. “Every day that I think about what happened to Walter and his family, I’m thankful that Santana was a good person to do what he did; not just in filming the incident, but in stepping up and turning the video over, because it’s something that he did not have to do.”
The video of the shooting spread so quickly it became known worldwide. It truly hit Santana how viral it had become when he returned home to visit his family and he learned that people in the most remote locations of the island had also seen it.
When it became known that Santana was the man behind the video, his friend and client, Humberto Jorge, said he worried Santana had placed himself in danger. But Jorge commended the bravery of his friend for stepping up and exposing what happened.
“Police abuse is something that goes on worldwide,” said Jorge, also in Spanish. “It’s something that you hear of in our countries. But communities are waking up because technology has made it to where you can actually see it.”
Indeed, with the video in tow, legislators back in Columbia kicked into high gear. The Senate and the House both advanced legislation that would require all officers wear body cameras. Other bills were also filed, including some that would require all officer-involved shootings to be investigated by SLED.
Santana said he’s happy lawmakers continue to go to such lengths to ensure that both officers and the public are protected, stressing that abusers exist on both sides of the law.
Not all police officers are bad, Santana said. Most officers are out there saving lives.
With less than half an hour to go before the bill signing, Santana finds the perfect shirt. It’s a button-down, long-sleeve top in a light blue color that will hopefully not make him stand out on a day he believes is not about him. But the minute he walks into the room full of lawmakers, activists and police officers, all eyes are on him — the man many have hailed as a hero.
He’s asked to join the crowd that will surround Haley as she signs the bill. He finds a spot to her left where he hopes he’ll blend in. But once the news conference is over, he gets spotted and asked to speak.
“Today I witnessed how a person, an idea, can change things for the better,” Santana said. “It’s something really pretty. It’s just unfortunate that we had to lose a life.”
Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.