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Scoppe: 'Why do people run from police?' and other questions that deserve an answer

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Federal probe possibilities: North Charleston investigation could follow Ferguson (copy) (copy)

An image from a video shows then-North Charleston patrolman Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back as Scott ran away from an April 4, 2015, confrontation after a traffic stop. Feidin Santana/Provided

The news release was breathless: "Solicitor Scarlett Wilson blames Walter Scott’s Murder on himself during 2016 Trial: 'He lost his life for his foolishness.'"

It was followed by social media posts with the 2016 YouTube video showing Ms. Wilson’s opening argument in the murder trial of Michael Slager, where she tells jurors she’s going to “put it out there,” and then does:

“If Walter Scott had stayed in that car, he wouldn’t have been shot. If Walter Scott had not resisted arrest, he wouldn’t have been shot. He paid the extreme consequence for his conduct. He lost his life for his foolishness.”

If Ms. Wilson had stopped there, it would have been appalling. It would have been a classic case of victim-blaming and, much more significantly, excusing the criminal actions of the by-then-former North Charleston police officer who killed Mr. Scott. But of course the prosecutor who made the decision to charge Mr. Slager with murder didn’t stop there.

On this Independence Day, the United States is a nation at war with itself. Fractured along ideological lines, approaching an election that threatens to leave voters convinced that they've been disenfranchised, plunged into economic turmoil borne of a global pandemic that many don't acknowledge, further torn by racially fueled civil unrest. Yet we have a shared political heritage to celebrate.

She pivoted. In the very next breath. To what she wanted the jury to do: “bring accountability to Michael Slager, for his choice, for his decision, to go too far. For his decision to let his sense of authority get the better of him. For his decision to shoot an unarmed man in the back. Five times. To try to shoot him eight times.”

It’s awful that we’re in a place where a prosecutor can be pilloried for recognizing her biggest obstacle in persuading jurors to convict a bad cop and then tackling it head on. That acknowledging reality is taboo. It’s disturbing that the criticism came from someone who could replace her as solicitor.

But my point isn’t about whether Ben Pogue should be granted the awesome power to prosecute if he’s willing to use such a truncated version of a quote to try to score a win. It’s not even about Walter Scott’s murder. Or it’s not just about Walter Scott’s murder.

Scoppe Mug Shot (copy)

Cindi Ross Scoppe

It’s about elephants and snowflakes and the things that all of us have to be willing to do if we want to stop unjustified police killings of black people and close the growing chasm between people who think cops can do no wrong and people who think cops can do no good.

Many of us, when we see video of a police officer gunning down a fleeing suspect, think: “That’s outrageous. He needs to rot in jail.”

A lot of people see those same videos and think: “Only guilty people run.” And even if they don’t think “The officer had no choice but to shoot, to stop him from escaping,” they’re predisposed to believe the officer’s inevitable claim that he feared for his life. Even when the suspect isn’t armed.

And you know what? They’ve got a point. People who run from cops usually are guilty — of something. Rarely, though, are they guilty of a capital offense. Mr. Scott, for instance, was behind on child-support payments and probably thought he would end up in jail if Mr. Slager ran a check on him. So he ran. And a bad cop killed him.

A prosecutor who wants to convict a cop for killing an unarmed, fleeing suspect has to start by addressing that elephant in the room. By acknowledging that people shouldn’t run from cops. And then convincing jurors that running doesn’t give the officer license to act as judge, jury and executioner. That it’s a crime to shoot someone who doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the officer or someone else. As unarmed, fleeing suspects rarely do. Every prosecutor trying a cop has similar elephants that have to be addressed.

The gruesome killing of George Floyd galvanized public support for police reforms, but a lot of that support is fragile, and it can slip away once we get down to details — particularly if we allow the “police can do no good” voices to drown out sensible voices.

If we want to translate this moment into significant reforms, if we want to change a culture that says cops are always right, we all have to be willing to address the elephants in the room.

That means bucking the snowflake culture and admitting that victims sometimes put themselves in situations that contribute to their victimization. That doesn’t mean they’re to blame; the people who kill or injure or rape or rob them are always, always to blame. But it’s a reality that we often have the ability to reduce our chances of becoming a victim.

And yes, it is deplorable that in 2020 I know to be extra polite if I’m pulled over so I won’t get a traffic ticket, and my African American friends know to be extra polite so they won’t become a statistic. But that’s where we are, and it’s why black parents have to spend so much time lecturing their children about not arguing with police and not copping an attitude — and certainly not running.

Addressing the elephant in the room means being willing to have real conversations at the intersection of law enforcement and culture and race. And not just the conversations where African Americans and white liberals lecture white conservatives about racism. Also the conversations where African Americans and white liberals and those of us in the sensible center listen to the objections and answer the questions of white conservatives — even if we think those questions are insincere. Sometimes they are; usually they aren’t.

Whatever the case, if we answer people’s questions, we might just change some hearts, which is the only way to make lasting change. If we call them racists for asking the questions, we'll only harden those hearts.

Cindi Ross Scoppe is an editorial writer for The Post and Courier. Contact her at cscoppe@postandcourier.com or follow her on Facebook or Twitter  @cindiscoppe.

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