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Is officer in S.C. shooting a danger to community? Case shows legal shift.

Police have long received the benefit of the doubt from the court system, analysts say. But Michael Slager, the officer charged in the North Charleston, S.C., shooting, was denied bond – a fresh sign of significant change.

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    Former police officer Michael Slager attends a bond hearing in Charleston, S.C., last week. Attorneys for Mr. Slager, who is charged with killing an unarmed black man who ran from a traffic stop in South Carolina, argued that he is not dangerous and should be freed on bail. The judge disagreed.
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Is Michael Slager a danger to his community?

That is how Mr. Slager, the former North Charleston, S.C., police officer charged with murder for shooting Walter Scott in April, was described this week by the judge overseeing his trial.

On Monday, Circuit Judge Clifton Newman denied Slager’s request to be released on bond, citing “persuasive evidence” that he would “constitute an unreasonable danger to the community.” 

Judge Newman’s decision is par for the course when it comes to the average homicide defendant, experts say. But given the context of his crime, Slager is not the average homicide defendant.

In the past, an officer in Slager’s position might have got the benefit of the doubt “at every stage of the proceedings,” says Kenneth Gaines, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Now, his trial is being seen as part of the broader shift in thinking about how police are treated by the legal system.

Some police departments have begun reforming themselves, adopting body cameras to promote transparency in potential court cases. And local prosecutors have shown a new willingness to bring charges against police, most notably with Baltimore charging six officers in the death of Freddie Gray.

Newman’s bond decision in the Slager case hints that this greater scrutiny might be extending to the men and women behind the bench, too.

“Now it’s probably more equal treatment in terms of how they’re treated pretrial,” says Professor Gaines, noting that a lot of deference is given to judges when it comes to bail decisions. “I don’t think he’s really been treated any differently than anyone else who [would be] similarly situated.”

A number of factors are working together erode the unquestioned support police officers have long received from the court system, and the Slager case represents this ongoing shift. 

The case revolves around Slager’s testimony and a bystander’s video. When a routine traffic stop spiraled out of control, Slager shot Mr. Scott five times.

Slager initially told investigators that Scott had attacked him and taken his taser, but the bystander’s video appeared to contradict those statements, and three days after the incident, Slager was arrested, fired from the police department, and charged with murder. He has been in jail since.

If the video hadn’t surfaced, “things probably would have been a little different,” Gaines says.

In some respects, it gave the judge no choice but to deny Slager bond, analysts say. During the bond hearing last week, Slager promised to abide by the court’s conditions of his release, the Post and Courier reported. But his false statements after the shooting damaged his credibility with the court.

“Whatever the circumstances you create for bond, you have to trust the defendant to follow the court’s orders,” Gaines adds, “and if you have a credibility problem, that hurts you.”

The rising prevalence of video recordings of police encounters – both in South Carolina and elsewhere – is forcing prosecutors and judges to give police suspects less deference.

Courts have historically treated police officer testimony “with great deference owing to their participation in the criminal justice system," says Thomas Nolan, a criminologist at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. 

“Their testimony … was accepted as fact by the courts, by prosecutors, and even often by defense counsel,” adds Professor Nolan, who is a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.

Investigators for South Carolina’s Special Law Enforcement Division didn’t challenge Slager’s account of the incident when he first described it to them the morning of April 7, the Post and Courier reported. But within an hour of the emergence of the video, Slager had been fired and was in handcuffs.

“It’s changing the evidentiary information the court has to make decisions, so I think that’s helping it change things a bit,” Gaines says. “It’s probably leveling the playing field considerably.”

Nationwide scrutiny of police misconduct has gained steam since the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., over a year ago. Public confidence in police is at its lowest in 22 years, and prosecutors have more political cover to pursue charges as police departments choose transparency over officer morale. Officers from New York and Baltimore to Cincinnati and Albuquerque, N.M., are facing murder charges for shootings they were involved in – with some cases dating back into 2014.

“Some prosecutors, at least in recent cases, seem to be displaying a greater willingness to hold these officers accountable,” says Daniel Medwed, a professor at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

But while officers appear to be losing the level of trust they once had in the court system, that doesn’t mean they will be found guilty. Being treated “like anybody else” also means the right to fair legal proceedings.

Both a grand jury and investigators from the United States Department of Justice declined to pursue charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mr. Brown. A grand jury also declined to pursue charges against the officer involved in the death of Eric Garner, who died after he was put in a chokehold during an arrest in Staten Island last year. A Cleveland officer involved in a 2012 shooting saw his case go to a judge, but he was found not guilty.

Slager “needs to be treated like anybody else in the same situation,” says Gaines. “He’s certainly going to get his day in court to pursue it.”

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