Walter Scott shooting: Why video is central to this police case

Footage appears to show a white South Carolina police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black man, Walter Scott. The case is leading to renewed calls for body cameras on officers and the use of videos by civilians.

A white police officer in South Carolina has been charged with murder after a cell phone video, said to have been taken by a bystander, appears to show the officer shooting to death a black man who was unarmed and fleeing.

The incident has led to renewed calls for body cameras on officers and for more bystander videos – both of which could help improve transparency and restore confidence in a justice system that has seen its trust erode following high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police. 

“Video is very transparent,” William “Tony” Farrar, a California police chief and co-author of a study on the effectiveness of body cameras, told The New York Times. “It’s the whole enchilada.”

[Update: At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said that police officer Michael Slager has been fired. There is a police dash-cam video of the incident, and the city had received a grant to order 101 body cameras and that mayor had ordered an additional 150 cameras.]

In this case, the video shows North Charleston, S.C., patrolman Michael Slager, who is white, making physical contact with a black man, identified as Walter Scott. “An object then falls to the ground,” The Washington Post reported.

Suddenly Scott turns and takes off running, his back to Slager. Slager pulls his weapon and fires eight shots toward Scott’s back as Scott moves farther and farther away from him. 

Mr. Scott was struck with five of the rounds, family attorneys told the Post.

The incident occurred Saturday, and local police quickly declared it “a traffic stop gone wrong,” according to The Post and Courier. They alleged that Mr. Scott fought with the officer over a Taser before the officer used deadly force, the paper reported.

But the captured footage contradicts the police statement, and has led to the arrest of Mr. Slager on a murder charge that could carry the death penalty, according to Reuters.

The swiftness of this investigation and arrest stands in contrast to the weeks and months of doubt and fear following the deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two unarmed black men who were killed during altercations with the police.

Some say that having a video makes all the difference – and have thus renewed a heated debate about body cameras on police officers.

Proponents argue that video recordings not only provide evidence that isn’t reliant on testimony, but also promotes overall transparency. Rialto, Calif. police chief Farrar, in his study, found that citizen complaints against police fell by 90 percent, and the use of force by his officers dropped by half, after body cameras were employed.

Footage could also work for the police instead of against them.

“It really helped to have the video because it proved the veracity of the officer’s side over that of his accuser,” says Capt. Randy Deanda, Rialto police spokesman told The Christian Science Monitor. “This is happening all the time now and is eliminating the problem of ‘he said, she said.’ This is really changing the nature of policing here.”

But body cameras also raise privacy concerns, which is the main argument that opponents make against their use. Civilians shouldn’t have to worry about leaked footage hitting the news, or having police store up video that they could later use for other purposes, Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times 

There are also complexities involved in crafting legislation and policy that would work in the field. Still, lawmakers and others in South Carolina are both renewing calls for body cameras on police and urging communities to take charge.

“If we don’t act and act with expediency, these types of incidents will continue to happen,” State Representative Wendell Gilliard, who has sponsored two bills related to body cameras in the state, told Time magazine.

North Charleston councilwoman Dorothy Williams stressed the city’s dedication to justice even as she encouraged citizens “to keep taping,” according to The Post and Courier.

“What happened today doesn’t happen all the time,” Chris Stewart, an attorney for Scott’s relatives, told the paper. “What if there was no video? What if there was no witness? ... This [arrest of Officer Slager] wouldn’t have happened.”

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