This post has been updated.
Life was looking up for Walter Scott. The 50-year-old father of four, who had gotten a job with a trucking supply company about nine months ago, had just proposed to his girlfriend and bought a car. On Saturday morning, he set out in his newly acquired Mercedes-Benz, an older model, for an auto parts store in North Charleston, S.C. But whatever new beginning Scott had in mind for himself or his family would never materialize.
At about 9:30 a.m., North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who is white, pulled Scott over near the auto store for allegedly driving with a broken tail light. Within minutes, a routine traffic stop had escalated into a pursuit. “Chasing on foot down Craig Street,” Slager called into his radio. “Black male, green shirt, blue pants.”
Scott, who is black, had a family court warrant out for his arrest. He owed back child support, the family’s lawyer, Chris Stewart, told The Washington Post. That may have been on his mind, his brother Anthony Scott told the New York Times. And so he allegedly fled and was killed by an officer that morning.
How that happened is the subject of two different stories. The first was given out by police in the hours immediately after the event. The second was in a video made public Tuesday night.
Together they make a third story, about the gap between what police originally said and what the world has now seen in the video. It’s what makes the events in North Charleston so different from the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York, and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. And it’s got people wondering, does it take a video? And what if there is no video?
“The video is so shocking,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director for the ACLU of South Carolina. “I think one of the concerns that immediately comes to mind is the discrepancy between the initial story, the kind of rush to judgment, the rush to say that procedures were followed and this was justified, and then when the video surfaced that quickly unraveled. That could raise concerns about other incidents in which we’ve been assured that nothing was out of order and the officer acted completely properly but there were no witnesses or video documentation to dispute that.”
“It raises questions” indeed, said Stewart, the family’s attorney. “Would the police department have let this go if we hadn’t released it?”
But the way police ultimately handled it, charging the officer with murder, gives hope to some.
“I am surprisingly and gratifyingly shocked because to the best of my memory, I cannot think of another occasion in which a law enforcement officer was actually prosecuted for something like this in South Carolina,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of Charleston’s NAACP branch. “My initial thought was, ‘Here we go again. This will be another time where there will be a cursory investigation. It will be the word of law enforcement versus those who are colored as vile perpetrators. People will get very mad, but at the end of the day nothing will change.’ This kind of changed the game,” Darby said of the video and Slager’s arrest.
The original police version of what happened next in North Charleston, as reported April 4 by the Post and Courier, was this: “A man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him. That did not work … and an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him.”
“I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation,” said Slager’s attorney at the time, David Aylor, hours later. “Officer Slager believes he followed all the proper procedures and policies of the North Charleston Police Department.”
What police did not know then was that yards away from the shooting, a bystander was recording the incident on his cellphone. He would ultimately turn the video over to the family.
The video, which does not show the traffic stop, begins with Scott and Slager making physical contact, as if they’re slapping hands. An object then falls to the ground. 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. Five shots reportedly hit him — four in the back and one in the ear, family attorneys said.
Scott slumps and falls to the ground, face down. Slager approaches him. “Put your hands behind your back,” he shouts. He handcuffs Scott and walks out of the frame. Seconds later, another officer arrives, pulls on blue surgical gloves and kneels down beside Scott.
Slager then jogs back toward something on the ground, perhaps his Taser. He reaches down and picks it up, and then drops it near Scott’s body.
“Shots fired,” Slager said into his radio moments after the shooting, according to the police dispatch audio, as Scott lay motionless on the ground. “Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.”
Two minutes later, Slager called in again: “Need someone to come behind pawn shop with a kit. Gunshot wounds to chest, to the right thigh, not responsive.”
In contrast to weeks or even months of uncertainty over the Garner and Brown deaths, the investigation into Scott’s death seems to have transformed dramatically within a few days, thanks to the video. Armed with what they seemed to regard as unambiguous evidence, prosecutors and police reversed course, arresting the 33-year-old cop and charging him with murder.
Under Supreme Court precedent, a police shooting may be justified if the officer fears for his or her life or the life of others, but not merely to keep someone from running away. The Post and Courier in Charleston noted last night that police in South Carolina have been involved in more than 200 shooting incidents in the past five years, almost all of which were deemed justified.
Videos never tell the whole story and sometimes not even a fraction of a story. There were no frames showing the entire encounter in North Charleston. The officer, like anyone else, is entitled to a presumption of innocence, and has not been heard from. But based on what was visible, Samuel Walker, an academic expert in policing told the paper, it was “absolutely outrageous. … This person is fleeing. He does not have a gun, he hasn’t stopped to turn. … There is absolutely no justification for that shooting.”
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey said at a news conference. “If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield … you have to live with that decision.”
Community leaders, citing other recent shootings of black men by white cops in the area, said they were cheered by the quick turnaround in this case.
But it raised other disturbing questions across the country Wednesday morning as people digested the news from North Charleston. Does it require a video to get at the truth? What if there is no video? Why do such incidents continue?
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city but bears little resemblance to its more scenic neighbor to the south. Over the past two decades, as Charleston has emerged as a foodie’s paradise of restaurants and boutique hotels, North Charleston suffered massive job losses with the closure of a naval base. As housing prices went up on the Peninsula, as Charleston is called, many African Americans moved to North Charleston.
“What has happened in Charleston proper is that there has been a lot of gentrification,” said Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston. “A lot of people have been pushed out of downtown Charleston and will frequently move into the adjacent area of North Charleston.”
Today, Charleston and North Charleston are starkly different cities. Only 25 percent of Charleston’s population is black, compared with 47 percent in North Charleston. Per capita income in North Charleston is just 61 percent of that in Charleston, according to U.S. Census data.
As in Ferguson, Mo., however, those demographics are not reflected among the ranks of North Charleston’s police. According to the Post and Courier, roughly 80 percent of its police officers are white.
Tensions between North Charleston’s mostly white police force and its black population have been high in recent years, according to both Powers and Darby. The city was labeled one of the nation’s most dangerous in 2006, and aggressive police tactics have riled residents since then, the Post and Courier has reported.
“There have been lingering concerns for years about racial profiling,” Darby said. “Things like broken tail lamps or license plates or mirrors not there. People have been intercepted because they happen to be driving nice cars. Things like not coming to a full stop versus a rolling stop at stop signs. Bizarre stuff like that.
“It’s not like we are unaccustomed to this stuff. There is no great surprise and moral outrage when a black person dies at the hands of a white police officer. It’s not just true of the Charleston Police Department. It’s true of the sheriff’s department; it’s true of the Charleston Police Department and the North Charleston Police Department.”
“So this came as a surprise,” Darby said of Tuesday’s developments, “and it’s a welcome surprise because it gives hope that we might get a wee bit more balance.”