A former police officer from South Carolina is facing federal charges in relation to the death of an unarmed black man in 2015, according to court records unsealed on Wednesday.
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager was already facing a state murder charge after bystander video emerged of him shooting motorist Walter Scott eight times in the back. The former officer had stopped Mr. Scott for a broken taillight, after which the driver attempted to run. Cellphone footage taken by a bystander was key to establishing what happened between Scott and the former officer, who claimed that Scott ran at him with a Taser, not away from him as the video showed.
The critical role of video footage in this case highlights how the presence of cameras, whether worn by police or used by onlookers, can improve transparency and provide insight into how police operate. Studies have shown that “everyone behaves better” when cameras are a factor, and more municipalities have moved to incorporate the visual recorders into law enforcement operations.
“Body-worn cameras hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve,” Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said in a statement this past year.
The implementation of body cameras can also help prove “the veracity of the officer’s side over that of his accuser,” according to Rialto, Calif. Police Capt. Randy Deanda, as well as providing an unbiased account of an event from bystanders or security footage. Cities like Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, and more have moved to equip their officers with cameras, with more readying their law enforcement officers for the system.
Cameras also help friends and community members connected to shootings or other legal incidents, as video evidence can provide clues as to what really happened better than speculation or second-hand accounts. Video can also spark protests, though, as in the case of video showing the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason van Dyke in 2014. That footage was not released for more than one year after Laquan's death.
For Slager, the existence of footage may have been the difference between getting off free and going to prison. A lawyer for Scott’s relatives, Chris Stewart, said the presence of a camera made the case unique, both for the film evidence and for an indictment of a police officer by the government.
“I think the Justice Department is tired of sitting on the sidelines and they think this is one they can definitely win and send a message to police departments around the country,” he told the Associated Press.
“What happened today doesn’t happen all the time,” Mr. Stewart told The Post and Courier.
“What if there was no video? What if there was no witness? ... [Slager’s arrest] wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Slager now faces several federal charges for depriving Scott of his civil rights, obstruction of justice, and the unlawful use of a weapon – his Glock Model 21, .45-caliber pistol – during the commission of a crime. His state trial in which he faces a possible life sentence without parole will begin later this year, or in 2017. Slager still says he is innocent.
Material from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.