A police officer who shot and killed 50-year-old Walter L. Scott as he ran away on Saturday has been charged with murder. Charges were brought after video surfaced of Scott running away from the officer, Michael T. Slager, who stands his ground and fires eight shots until the last one hits home.
The rest of the video captures an eery scene: Slager demands several times that his victim “put [his] hands behind his back,” and cuffs him, despite the fact that Scott has not moved since falling to the ground. It shows what appears to be Slager planting evidence of a struggle as he drops what looks like his taser next to Scott. Back-up arrives and requests a medical kit. Mr. Scott is still facedown, not moving. At one point Slager takes his pulse. Another couple of officers arrive, and one takes Slager aside to talk while the other two appear to be examining Scott’s injuries. Mr. Scott is still unmoving, and no one administers CPR, no one seemed alarmed, it doesn’t even look like anyone tries to talk to him.
When discussing violence that cops commit while “on the job,” it’s hard to resist the idea that these are stressful situations, you feel (rightly or not) that your life is threatened, who knows what someone will do in that circumstance? And it’s true, cops do have to brave dangers that most of us would never choose to confront (although for some people living in high crime areas or buildings is not an option but a necessity and we don’t give them medals).
But it’s also true that, statistically speaking, cops are better cops for white people than Black people. Same cops, responding to calls about the same crimes, exposed to all the same dangers, are just way, way less likely to kill white people than Black people “in the line of duty.” So while the challenge is real, it does not give anyone a pass to be selective about when to cave to it and when to do the right thing. (For police reform ideas from the experts, see this post from March.)
This situation, captured in video, is obviously not one in which it’s appropriate for an officer to use force (for someone who’s running away deadly force is only appropriate when they “pose a significant immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others”). Miraculously, officials seem to have accepted that; North Charleston Mayer Keith Summey has said, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong… And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
But, as Michelle Alexander said, what if we didn’t have a video?
And of course, video isn’t always sufficient. As my very favorite Borowitz Report pointed out after a grand jury failed to indict officers for the death of Eric Garner (despite there being a video of his death), videos will be much more effective if we equip grand juries with eyes.