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South Carolina police shooting: what we know, how we know it (+video)

A bystander video disputes police officer's account of the fatal shooting of an unarmed, fleeing black suspect after a traffic stop over a broken taillight. 

A South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder in the death of an African-American man, and if it weren’t for one civilian with a camera, he likely would’ve gotten away without even being charged:

WASHINGTON — A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting and killing an apparently unarmed black man in the back while he ran away.

The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, had said he feared for his life because the man took his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.

(…)

The shooting unfolded after Officer Slager stopped a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. The driver, Walter L. Scott, 50, ran away, and Officer Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. He fired his Taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Mr. Scott, according to police reports.

Moments later, Officer Slager reported on his radio, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” according to police reports.

But the video, which was taken by a bystander and provided to The New York Times by Mr. Scott’s lawyer, presents a different account. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Officer Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Mr. Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Mr. Scott turns to run.

Something – it is not clear whether it is the stun gun – is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.

The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and and picks something off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the state’s criminal investigative body, is investigating the shooting. The F.B.I. and the Justice Department, which has opened a string of civil rights investigations into police departments under Mr. Holder, is also investigating the shooting.

The Supreme Court has held that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that he “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

(…)

Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Mr. Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Mr. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Mr. Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer arrives later, apparently with a medical kit, but also not seen performing CPR.

Mr. Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family, said the coroner told him that Mr. Scott was struck five times – three in the back, one in the upper buttocks and one in the ear. It is not clear whether Mr. Scott was killed immediately. (The coroner’s office declined to make the report available to the Times.)

The local newspaper, The Post And Courier has a more detailed description of what’s on the video:

The three-minute clip starts out shaky, but it levels off as Slager and Scott appear to be grabbing at each other’s hands.

Slager has said through his attorney that Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle.

The video appears to show Scott slapping at the officer’s hands as several objects fall to the ground. It’s not clear what the objects are.

Scott starts running away. Wires, presumably from Slager’s Taser, stretch from Scott to the officer’s hands.

With Scott more than 10 feet from Slager, the officer draws his pistol and fires seven times in rapid succession. After a brief pause, the officer fires one last time. Scott’s back bows, and he falls face first to the ground near a tree.

After the gunfire, Slager glances at the person taking the video, then talks into his radio.

The cameraman curses, and Slager yells at Scott as sirens wail.

“Put your hands behind your back,” the officer shouts before he handcuffs Scott as another lawman runs to the scene.

Scott died there.

Given the fact that Scott was running away at the time he was shot, a fact seemingly confirmed by the fact that a majority of the shots entered at the rear of his body, and the officer’s claim that Scott had stolen his Taser seems to be clearly refuted by the the video. At the most, what appears to have happened is that Officer Slager deployed the Taser, unsuccessfully, and when it didn’t work he got into a physical altercation with Scott in an attempt to subdue him. Obviously, in an ideal world one can say that Scott should have complied with the officer, should not have engaged him physically, and most assuredly should not have tried to flee. However, the fact that Scott was trying to flee does not, in and of itself, justify the use of deadly force and the circumstances of this case seem to make clear that Officer Slager’s use of deadly force in this situation was not justified.

At the very least, though, one has to wonder how something that supposedly started as a traffic stop over a broken taillight ended up like this. Unfortunately, the video evidence that we have doesn’t show anything before the incident with the Taser so we don’t know what may have happened between Scott and Officer Slager that set this chain of events in motion. The fact that Scott generally doesn’t have a violent criminal record outside of an assault charge from nearly 30 years ago makes it seem unlikely that Scott initiated anything, but even if he did, it doesn’t seem as though it would justify what unfolds on the video. In any case, it is worth remembering that Officer Slager is entitled to the presumption of innocence of the charges against him until he’s proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’s true even though he seems to have denied those same rights to Walter Scott.

Obviously, this case is likely to revive many of the debates that ensued in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, the death of Eric Garner in New York City, and the failure of grand juries in both jurisdiction to indict the officers involved for even the most minimal of offenses. Very quickly, both of those cases and the manner in which they were handled by the justice system became symbolic of long-standing resentments among minorities in many parts of the country regarding what they see as unfair and unequal treatment by the police and by the legal system. Even when it became clear, for example, that the shooting in the Michael Brown case had unfolded in a manner other than the way that the initial popular reaction had thought and that the shooting was, at least as far as the law was concerned, entirely justified, the protests that the shooting had sparked continued both in Ferguson and in other parts of the country because of what they had come to symbolize. The death and apparent murder of Walter Scott falls within that narrative quite well. The only unusual thing about it is that there was independent video evidence of the shooting and that the officer in question has actually been charged with a crime.

One final note to keep in mind is the fact that none of this would be happening, and none of us would know who Walter Scott was or what happened that day, if it weren’t for one civilian with a camera who had the presence of mind, and the fortitude, to continue shooting even as all of this unfolded in front of him. Indeed, one has to wonder how many incidents like this have happened where there were no witnesses and, most importantly, nobody with a camera, nearby. At the very least, it strikes me that this closes the cases on the wisdom and propriety of requiring police officers to wear body cameras, and to have dashboard cameras in their cars, that are operating at all times during the course of a traffic stop. At the very least, such video evidence will go a long way toward revealing the truth of what happens in encounters like this, and hopefully it might actually cause officers to think twice before they act in the manner that Officer Slager did. After all, when you know that what you do is being captured on video that could potentially be seen by a future grand jury, acting like an out-of-control thug may just be a little less likely.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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