Walter Scott's mother leaves courthouse

Judy Scott, mother of Walter Scott, precedes other family members out of the Federal Courthouse in Charleston Monday, Dec. 4, 2017 after the first day in the sentencing of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who fatally shot the fleeing black man in April 2015. Wade Spees/Staff

We saw justice served on Thursday, but there was little to celebrate.

After all, the price was devastating to two families.

U.S. District Judge David Norton sentenced former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager to 20 years in prison for killing Walter Scott during a 2015 traffic stop.

This after a state jury last year would not even convict Slager of manslaughter — despite a video that showed him firing eight shots at the 50-year-old fleeing man.

Norton said that constituted second-degree murder, and that “Slager’s actions were disproportional to Scott’s misconduct.”

An understatement if there ever was one.

Community activists called it a historic day for civil rights. Finally, they said, there was justice for a black man wrongly shot by the police.

That sentiment is understandable. In just the past year, Oklahoma and Minnesota juries have inexplicably acquitted police officers for killing black men under similarly questionable circumstances.

So, yes, in many ways Norton's sentence was a refreshing taste of justice. Solicitor Scarlett Wilson made the right call asking the Justice Department to look at a case where federal standards made conviction more likely.

But the sad truth here is that ultimately nobody really won.

The North Charleston Police Department will likely find community relations even more strained, and officers’ jobs more difficult, after this verdict.

Slager’s young son will grow up with a father behind bars.

And, no matter what, Miles Scott will never have a father.

Not much to celebrate.

Avoidable tragedy

In the courtroom Thursday, Slager took responsibility for his actions and said he hoped that one day Scott’s family could forgive him.

Had he said that before last year’s trial, he could have probably saved himself a decade in prison.

The family forgave Slager before he apologized, however, which speaks to the character of Walter Scott’s parents, brothers and sons.

Slager should also apologize to his former colleagues. For years, North Charleston police have been accused of racial profiling and mistreating black suspects. His actions gave those allegations infinite credibility, and cast a dark cloud over hundreds of fine and decent officers — the vast majority of whom were appalled by Slager's actions.

Of course, there's blame to go around. Bad policy and perhaps a lack of training set Slager on this deadly course. National criminal justice experts say South Carolina's police academy doesn’t spend enough time training officers on how to handle situations when suspects run.

Slager should have let Scott go; he had his driver’s license and his car. How far was he going to go?

Rodney Scott said this week that his brother died over a $1.58 brake light, which was Slager’s excuse for pulling him over.

Well, perhaps Slager wouldn’t have bothered with such a minor infraction except for a quota policy that required officers to stop a certain number of people every day.

In the end, all those disparate circumstances added up to something that could have been avoided.

“This is a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened,” Judge Norton said.

Precedent?

Andy Savage, who served as Slager’s attorney pro bono, was right about one thing.

He said a harsh sentence would send a message to police officers around the country. Savage suggested this would impede law enforcement from doing their jobs out of fear of prosecution.

That shouldn't be the case. Hundreds of thousands of police officers do the right thing every day, and this should have no impact on them. Perhaps it should force training academies, however, to focus more on handling such situations.

Police officers have to make split-second, life-or-death decisions, and they are often given a deserved benefit of the doubt. But nothing in their training says you shoot a suspect in the back five times for fleeing a traffic stop — or fighting for control of their Taser, if that happened.

Yes, Walter Scott should not have run from the police; even his family says that. But that is not a killing offense. That's the bottom line in this case.

Anyone who argues the shooting was justified should ask themselves if they’d feel the same way if the roles were reversed. What if a black cop shot a white man?

The Slager case may set a national precedent, and the real winners will be people we never know because someone thinks twice before pulling a trigger and making them another sad statistic.

But that doesn’t change anything for two families irreparably harmed.

Michael Slager made a mistake, and it’s going to cost him 20 years of his life. Walter Scott made a mistake, and it ended his life.

But they aren't the only casualties. One simple traffic stop gone awry has injured an entire community and devastated two families.

A tragedy, indeed.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.