This week, the Justice Department announced a plea bargain with Michael Slager, the former North Charleston, S.C., police officer who killed Walter Scott by shooting him in the back as he fled during a traffic stop. As part of the deal, Slager will plead guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights in exchange for the other charges against him being dropped, including a murder charge.
The excerpt below is from the DOJ’s statement on the agreement.
“The Department of Justice will hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force,” said Attorney General Sessions. “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. As our Department works to support the courageous and professional law enforcement personnel who risk their lives every day to protect us, we will also ensure that police officers who abuse their sacred trust are made to answer for their misconduct.”
Those are some pretty harsh words for Slager. There are a couple of things worth remembering here, though.
First, were it not for a citizen-shot video, Slager almost certainly would never have been charged. His initial report claimed that he shot Scott because Scott was holding Slager’s Taser. The video shows that not only was this not true, it shows Slager dropping the Taser near Scott after shooting him.
Were it not for the video, Slager’s word would have been golden. The shooting would have been investigated by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and it’s a pretty good bet that without the video, that agency would have cleared him of any wrongdoing. As I reported in a series here last year, SLED has a history of glossing over police shootings. One investigator admitted in a deposition that he doesn’t read forensics reports in police shootings. In one particularly disturbing case, SLED didn’t bother to ask the police officers who shot Laurie Jean Ellis why they claimed to have heard a gunshot and saw smoke coming from a gun that turned out to be a BB gun. When asked why he didn’t follow up, and ask the officers to explain the discrepancy, a SLED supervisor answered, “Because they’re police officers and I believe what they’re telling me.” In another case, SLED investigators didn’t bother to explain why body-camera footage of a fatal police raid on a man suspected of misdemeanor gambling completely contradicted police reports. In still another, SLED cleared officers who shot and seriously injured a man during a pot raid, despite security video showing that they clearly didn’t knock and announce, as they had claimed. The Justice Department statement about Slager praises SLED, and gives its chief, Mark Keel, a platform to make his own comments about the investigation.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of course, wants less federal oversight of state and local police. He wants to give more power to agencies such as SLED and to police departments to investigate themselves. The Walter Scott case is a good example of why that’s a bad idea. In Scott’s case, the citizen-shot video went viral, forcing the hand of state officials. Thus the criminal charges. But justice wasn’t exactly served at the state level. Slager was tried five months ago in South Carolina. The result was a hung jury. As Jacob Sullum points out at Reason, it isn’t that the jury thought the shooting was justified, it’s that they didn’t want to convict a cop.
The jury foreman, Dorsey Montgomery, told NBC News he was initially inclined to convict Slager of murder but decided after reviewing the evidence that manslaughter was the more appropriate charge. One of the 12 jurors was firmly opposed to both charges, Montgomery said, while five others were undecided. “Part of the problem,” another, unnamed juror told the Charleston Post and Courier, “was the fact that he may not be completely innocent, but the charges we were given were possibly a little too harsh.”
The latter juror thought the undecided members of the panel (who evidently included him) would have been more inclined to convict Slager if given the option of involuntary manslaughter. But that charge clearly did not apply in this case, since involuntary manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison with no minimum, involves killing someone through criminal negligence, meaning the defendant acted with “reckless disregard of the safety of others.” It is obvious, as even Slager admitted during his trial, that he deliberately shot Scott. The question was whether he was justified in doing so and, if not, whether he acted out of malice.
It seems clear that half of the jurors bent over backward to avoid convicting Slager of manslaughter, to the point that they ignored the law. It also seems clear that they never would have cut so much slack for an ordinary defendant, one who was not wearing a uniform and badge when he committed his crime . . .
Sullum points to this piece from the Post and Courier based on interviews with the jury. From the piece:
In the end, the juror said his fellow panel members had a “very hard time” faulting the policeman for a decision he made as a result of his job. They once sent a note to the judge asking whether the self-defense requirements are any different for law officers than for citizens.
“Society as a whole has not made it easy to be a policeman,” the juror said. “The cop on the street is always being second-guessed, always going to have 5 million eyes on him. Everybody is going to Monday morning quarterback it. But he’s out there, and he’s got to make a decision within a second or two.”
If that language sounds familiar, it ought to. In his first major speech as AG, Jeff Sessions said, “Somehow, some way, we’ve undermined the respect for our police, and made, oftentimes, their job more difficult, and it’s not been well received by them.” He has warned against second-guessing police, and cautioned that “viral videos” are making cops jobs’ harder. “They’re more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the hard but necessary work of up-close policing that builds trust and prevents violent crime,” he said in February.
Judging from the Justice Department’s news release, Sessions thinks the killing of Walter Scott was a crime. The plea agreement indicates that he thinks Slager’s shooting of Scott violated Scott’s civil rights. Based on both, Sessions thinks Slager’s actions also “harm the country” and “erode trust in law enforcement.” But it’s telling that the members of the South Carolina jury who couldn’t bring themselves to convict Slager — despite overwhelming visual evidence — explained their reluctance with language that’s virtually indistinguishable from Sessions’s. It’s indicative of a mind-set that police officers should be trusted by virtue of the fact that they’re police officers, and is skeptical of anything that makes us more skeptical of them.
Sessions doesn’t like viral video of alleged police misconduct. Viral video is why Michael Slager isn’t carrying a gun and wearing a badge. And Sessions is glad Slager is no longer a cop — or at least seems to be. Sessions doesn’t want the federal government meddling in local policing. But federal meddling in local policing is why Slager is facing a felony charge. And Sessions is glad Slager is facing a felony charge — or at least seems to be. It all doesn’t quite add up.
For all the credit Sessions’s Justice Department is taking for this plea agreement, judging by his stated policy preferences, had the Scott shooting occurred while Sessions was in office, it seems unlikely that Justice would have gotten involved in the first place. And for all the language in the Justice Department statement about the harm bad cops do, it seems clear that both Sessions’s rhetoric and the policies he advocates will only enable more of them.