What North Charleston can teach America

The April 4 shooting of a black man in the South Carolina city evoked reactions of empathy, transparency, and swift justice. That helped keep the city calm and focused on solutions and unity.

AP Photo
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon holds a candle as he joins a protest in front of city hall in North Charleston, S.C., April 8. Walter Scott was killed by a North Charleston police officer after a traffic stop on April 4.

The shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in South Carolina on April 4 might have ended up in the history books as yet one more tragedy about racial injustice and inequality in America. It might have resulted in street riots and community bitterness. Yet somehow the people of North Charleston, where Walter Scott was shot in the back while fleeing Patrolman Michael Slager, have decided to write a different story, not just in words but in deeds.

Their response stands in contrast to other cities, such as Ferguson, Mo., that have recently seen civil unrest after incidents of police violence on unarmed black men or boys. 

Their response has been marked by a string of actions that substituted good for evil in ways that have kept the city calm and focused on finding justice for Mr. Scott and solutions for better police-community relations, such as the purchase of body cameras for cops to use in traffic stops.

Perhaps the first and most critical action came from a bystander, Feidin Santana, who captured the incident on a cellphone video. At first he was afraid to hand over the video to authorities. Yet, as he said in an MSNBC interview, “I just put myself in the position of the family.” Out of his empathy came clarity about the incident.

A second crucial response was a call by Scott’s family for calm and understanding. His mother expressed faith in the justice system and the rest of the police force. “There are faithful and truthful people, and God has a way to make them do the right thing,” said Judy Scott.

Third, both Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers responded quickly with transparency, compassion, and contrition.

They did not flood the streets of North Charleston with police or with armored vehicles, as happened in Ferguson. They showed genuine remorse for the killing and did not defend the officer. “I have been praying for peace for the family and peace for the community,” said Chief Driggers.

They sent the video to state officials to start an investigation, even though the law did not require the city to do that. That resulted in a quick charge of murder against the police officer, which helped ensure calm.

They also met with the Scott family and have been as transparent as possible with them. “From the beginning ... all we wanted was the truth,”  said Anthony Scott, older brother of Walter. “Through this process, we’ve received the truth.”

These actions were supported by an array of pastors, elected officials, and others who reached across the city’s racial divide with hope and prayers.

One result of this community coming together will play out this Saturday, one week after the tragedy, during a memorial for Walter Scott. His family took up the chief’s offer of a police escort during the funeral procession.

That image alone will be a fine substitute for the tragic video of his killing, and should be a lesson for other communities in how to respond to such tragedies.

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