Does Walter Scott plea deal offer a path forward for justice in police killings?

Former officer Michael Slager's guilty plea comes at a time of critical exploration of the line between cultural and legal deference to police, and a growing imperative for officers to respect the lives of citizens.

Mic Smith/AP/File
Former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager, right, photographed on Dec. 5, 2016, pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist he shot and killed during a 2015 traffic stop.

On Tuesday, a former police officer stood in a South Carolina court and pleaded guilty to a felony for shooting an unarmed man in 2015 – the first time that has happened in a string of high-profile deaths since 2014.

In that light, “what these government officials did is they told Walter Scott and they told the Scott family, ‘You matter,’” Justin Bamberg, a Scott family attorney, told reporters.

In Louisiana that same day, the Department of Justice said it would not charge officers in another shooting of an unarmed man. Both deaths were caught on video by bystanders, both victims were African-American, and both shootings sparked widespread protests.

The struggle for justice in North Charleston and Baton Rouge is part of a broader exploration of the line between cultural and legal deference to police, and a growing imperative for officers to respect the lives of citizens.

Former police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty not to murder, but to a federal civil rights felony for shooting Walter Scott in the back five times after pulling him over for a broken tail light. Depending on what a judge decides at the end of the sentencing phase, Mr. Slager could face life in prison, or no jail time at all.

The Scott shooting “wasn’t a split-second decision,” says Robert Taylor, a top police misconduct investigator who is based in Dallas. “There’s a guy running away, the officer shoots at him eight times. It was one of the ugliest things I’ve reviewed, it gave every police officer in the country a black eye, and you have to show communities that [police] can’t do this.”

Slager’s guilty plea also came on the same day as the quick firing of an officer in a Dallas suburb after he shot into a moving car with a rifle, killing an unarmed teenager.

To be sure, the emerging standard of what an illegitimate police shooting looks like may be tested under a new White House administration that has vowed to show more deference to police departments.

The plea deal came after a grand jury indicted Slager in May, after a jury deadlocked on all charges against him last December. The case underscores how difficult it can be to make the most severe charges stick when a police officer is being implicated. The US has seen what appeared to outsiders to be solid cases evaporate in trials in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and New York.

For Richard Mack, the former sheriff of Graham County, Ariz., and founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the Slager plea deal in some ways reflects the kind of protections that has made police reform, especially involving officer training, difficult to achieve.

The deal “shows how you have to have a video for every step of the frame or you’re not going to get anything [on a police officer],” says Mr. Mack. “There’s still too much of this [from cops]: ‘I’m going to go home at night and that’s all that matters.’”

Experts say the Obama Justice Department at times relied too heavily on consent decrees and other punitive measures to correct patterns of police misconduct. It also did not charge former police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown in 2014, setting off intense national debate. Still, the decision to not levy charges in Mr. Sterling’s death, which witnesses called “murder, plain and simple,” raises questions about changing priorities at the Department of Justice, given Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric.

A path forward?

At the same time, Mr. Taylor says, there’s no evidence that the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions will look away from the misdeeds of individual officers, if there is clear evidence of a crime.

“The Department of Justice will hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement Tuesday. “Such failures of duty not only harm the individual victims of these crimes; they harm our country, by eroding trust in law enforcement and undermining the good work of the vast majority of honorable and honest police officers.”

Against that backdrop, some observers say the federal resolution of Scott’s death suggests a path forward: increased awareness by both police and the DOJ of the broader societal damage caused by poor police training and aggressive use of force policies, as well as a need for empathy toward citizens – even those who are suspects. Those hopes were tempered hours later, after the Justice Department failed to bring charges in the Sterling case.

But policing experts see signs that police departments are reacting more quickly to charges of officer misconduct – a model that can be traced back to North Charleston’s swift decision to fire Slager after Scott’s death.

After the death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, police officials in Balch Springs, Texas, reacted swiftly, firing an officer for violating several use-of-force protocols. The teen’s family says it now hopes his dismissal will be followed by murder charges.

'Everybody's life is critically important'

Policing experts point to another recent defining moment, during last year’s sniper attack in Dallas, which killed five officers. During the attack, Dallas police officers used their bodies to shield Black Lives Matter protesters from bullets.

“It’s one of the most important things that never comes out: Police are learning that the highest respect that a police officer can give to the community is that everybody’s life is critically important, including that of suspects,” says Mr. Taylor, a criminologist at the University of Texas in Dallas.

He adds: “After 40 years in this field – as a sworn officer, consultant, professor, and author of books on this – I’ve finally got hope, because we’re putting the focus back on the quality of a single interaction between one police officer and one member of the community.”

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