When Michael Thomas Slager fired eight shots at Walter Scott’s back Saturday morning, he not only killed a man — he wounded an entire community.
And it is going to take North Charleston a long time to heal.
For years, the North Charleston Police Department has been accused of racial profiling, of treating black suspects much more harshly than whites.
Some people scoffed at these charges. There are, after all, a lot of good men and women — black and white — on the force, and most of them are just trying to keep people safe. They have a job that carries great risk for modest pay.
That is true. There are a lot of good cops out there.
But the NAACP has long insisted that far too many police officers use minor traffic violations as an excuse to detain black men, search them and their cars — basically, to violate their civil rights.
And what did Slager do? He hit the lights on his patrol car and pulled over Scott for having a faulty brake light, just as he was turning into the parking lot of a Remount Road auto parts store.
A place where, reasonable people might assume, he was going specifically to take care of this problem.
Within minutes, Scott was dead — and Slager had proven a good many police critics right.
For whatever reason, Scott ran from the scene of the traffic stop.
He did not deserve to die for this offense.
Perhaps Slager discovered that Scott had an outstanding bench warrant for failure to pay child support and said he was going to arrest him. Scott chose to run, which was not a wise decision.
But Slager claimed that, during his pursuit, Scott took his Taser. The officer reported that he was forced to shoot the man as a result. But a passerby videotaped the encounter, and it appears that was far from the truth. At the time of his death, Scott had one of the Taser prongs sticking in his back.
The video calls into question everything Slager said, and not just because it’s hard to shoot yourself in the back.
But it is what’s not on the tape that is most telling. Scott is not acting aggressively, he isn’t trying to harm the officer. He was simply trying to run. And the video records no instance of Slager telling Scott to stop or halt — the officer just opened fire and emptied his magazine into a running, unarmed man. As if he could not have caught Scott, who was a 50-year-old man who had just been tased.
This is why police officers should be equipped with body cameras, as state Rep. Wendell Gilliard has said for a long time. Last year he introduced legislation to require body cameras, and lawmakers have let his bills languish in committee.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Gilliard says. “We have to move with expediency.”
Gilliard said last year that, without body cameras, controversies over police shootings will continue. And this one would have, too — if not for that video.
What more proof do lawmakers need?
The courts have ruled that police officers can shoot at fleeing suspects if they are considered a threat to others. But Scott wasn’t a violent criminal and he wasn’t armed.
Even if he hadn’t paid his child support, that is not an excuse for lethal force. Scott certainly cannot pay child support now.
Because he is dead.
To the credit of North Charleston, city officials took immediate action as soon as they learned of the video’s existence. Mayor Keith Summey called it a “true tragedy.”
“A police officer has made a bad decision and it’s going to cost him his job, and probably a lot more,” Summey says. “We don’t uphold the actions he took. He wasn’t trained to do that. It’s indefensible.”
Summey is absolutely right, it is indefensible. And the mayor and the city should be commended for taking swift and decisive action.
But the damage has been done, to Scott and to North Charleston.
Hopefully the city’s prompt response will help us avoid any civil unrest. Community leaders and Scott’s family have called for calm. They say we are better than that, better than Ferguson.
Let’s prove them right and not tarnish Scott’s memory.
Nothing will bring back Walter Scott. And that is a shame.
Unfortunately, Slager has not only killed a man, he has set back the police department’s community relations by years.
Slager may pay for his actions, but the rest of the police force will pay for far longer.
And that is the second true tragedy in North Charleston this week.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com