My View: What the Lonesome Death of Walter Scott Tells Us

Scott-Walter

Officer Michael Slager told investigators that Walter Scott had taken his Taser in a struggle and that he feared for his life. By most reports, both the local media and local police had bought into it. But for the emergence of the video that directly contradicted Officer Slager, he may well have gotten away with this.

The fact that a police officer is being charged with murder for a shooting that occurred on duty, under the color of law, is extremely rare. Countless other such killings, even those captured on video, have had no such result. It is all the more remarkable that this occurred in South Carolina and involved a white officer killing a black man.

As Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice said in an interview with the LA Times earlier this week, “It’s unusual. Because normally every effort is made not to indict an officer,  and in this case they looked at the evidence and they charged right away.”

The national narrative on officer involved shootings of unarmed black men has definitely changed some of the calculations. Ms. Rice noted, “I think it was the video that made it pretty clear what was going on and what happened. And the backdrop of what feels like an avalanche of these shootings, but what is really the norm in this country of questionable shootings of unarmed black men. To me, it’s always been there as this background avalanche that nobody pays attention to. But because the spotlight is on it now, people are beginning to become aware.”

That is what should worry us – this video in a lot of ways happened by accident. A person just happened to be there and videoed the incident on their camera phone. In fact, in an interview, the man who filmed the shooting said he almost deleted the recording over fear for his life.

“One of the officers told me to stop, but it was because I (said) to them that what they did it was an abuse and I witnessed everything,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

It has been nearly 25 years since a video camera by happenstance was able to capture the beating of motorist Rodney King by LAPD officers. Videos have had an uneven impact on cases. Often the video captures only a portion of the case – and, as even some of the more infamous cases have shown from Rodney King to Oscar Grant to Kelly Thomas – videos do not mean convictions for police.

Nevertheless, Ms. Rice believes that they are having an impact. “The videos are turning the police culture upside down,” she said. “Because the community knows what goes on. The police are in deep denial and they have an automated cover-up system for themselves. They just automatically tell a story that exonerates themselves.”

She explained that police are trained to say, “I was in fear of my life.” She said, “It’s almost like a mantra. And that’s just the norm and they see it as protecting themselves from an unreasonable public and unreasonable politicians. Because from the cops’ point of view, they’re asked to do the impossible and when they do it then they’re indicted.”

She described a conversation where she asked one officer, “Why do you lie so much?” and he said, “Ms. Rice we don’t consider it lying. We consider it protecting ourselves. What you call a lie we call survival.”

She said, “It’s that mentality. And the public, of course, sees cops covering up for bad deeds. Now I can understand both vantage points.… The problem is it’s not sustainable. And that’s what you’re seeing now; you’re seeing a strategy of survival falling apart.”

The question everyone is asking now is whether police use excessive force too often and whether the public is starting to see this for the first time.

Ms. Rice says, “No. I think what the country is doing is waking up to the possibility that the police could be wrong every now and then. I don’t see any tipping point of any kind. I see the same great reluctance on the part of the public to believe the African American community, because if you believe the African American community you really, really, really have to change your policing culture. And I don’t think the American public is there yet.”

However, what the public needs to thing about is this: but for the video, would Mr. Slager be facing murder charges? The fact that there is a video is extremely unlikely – there just happened to be a guy in the park, he just happened to persist when police basically ordered him to stop recording and leave, he was reluctant to come forward and nearly erased the video.

How many times has this happened, where the officer claims fear of life and it is not caught on video so the officer is believed? Despite the slew of recent high-profile cases, police officers almost always get the benefit of the doubt – and perhaps rightly so, given the power we entrust in them.

However, these snippets caught on video should force us to ask, how many other times have officers misled investigators in cases with no video evidence? How many other times did Mr. Slager overzealously pursue individuals in cases that did not end in a shooting?

The New York Times this week put it this way, “The case underscores two problems that have become increasingly clear since the civic discord that erupted last year after the police killed black citizens in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo.”

“The first, most pressing problem is that poorly trained and poorly supervised officers often use deadly force unnecessarily, particularly against minority citizens. The second is that the police get away with unjustly maiming or killing people by lying about the circumstances that prompted them to use force,” they write.

The Times adds, “Police departments all over the country clearly need to do a better job of training on how to de-escalate encounters with citizens and explaining when and how deadly force can be used.”

This was the problem we had with the Ferguson account – Officer Wilson seemed to have opportunities to de-escalate the confrontation and there are even questions about whether he needed to fire the kill shot. But that case was not caught on video – one wonders what we would have seen differently if it had been.

As University of South Carolina School of Law Professor Seth Stoughton put it this week in the NY York Times, “When cops evaluate a use-of-force incident, they ask whether it was justified, focusing on the legal rule set by the Supreme Court in the 1989 case Graham v. Connor. The Court held that officers may use force so long as it is ‘objectively reasonable.’ To determine whether a particular action was objectively reasonable, the Court held, judges must view the situation through the deferential lens of ‘a reasonable officer on the scene.'”

He continued, “When civilians evaluate a use-of-force incident, they ask whether it was avoidable. They want to know whether the officer could have done something—anything—else.”

NY Times columnist Charles Blow notes that while the police rightly charge the officer with murder and fire him from the department, the Mayor of North Charleston Keith Summey, says of the incident: “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.”

For Mr. Blow that phrase, “bad decision,” “seems to diminish the severity of what has happened. A life has been taken. And, if the video shows what it appears to show, there may have been some attempts by the officer to ‘misrepresent the truth,’ a phrase that one could also argue may diminish the severity of what is alleged to have happened.”

He calls it “yet another in a horrifyingly familiar succession of cases that have elevated the issue of use of force, particularly deadly force, by officers against people of color and inflamed the conversation that surrounds it.”

We have talked extensively about the trust issue. Mr. Blow argues that this case “further erodes an already tenuous trust by people of color in the police as an institution.”

He notes, “CBS News polling has shown that a vast majority of blacks believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person (zero percent believe the inverse.)”

A Sentencing Project report found last year: “Racial minorities’ perceptions of unfairness in the criminal justice system have dampened cooperation with police work and impeded criminal trials.”

Many have suggested we should decouple race from this discussion – but that is difficult to do. North Charleston, the third largest city in South Carolina, is comprised of 47 percent blacks and only 37 percent white. However, the police force is 80 percent white.

Police Chief Eddie Driggers was asked about whether he believed race played a role in what happened.

“I want to believe in my heart of hearts that it was a tragic set of events after a traffic stop,” he said. “I always look for the good in folks, and so I would hope that nobody would ever do something like that.”

An analysis by 538.com analysts Reuben Fischer-Baum and Carl Bialik earlier this week showed that “the proportion of arrests that are of African-Americans is close to the proportion of killings by police that are of African-Americans.”

However, “Arrest rates reflect police decisions on enforcement as well as underlying crime rates and do not mean that blacks are disproportionately likely to commit crimes and put themselves in harm’s way.” They note, “African-Americans are far more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession — 3.7 times more likely in 2010, according to the American Civil Liberties Union — even though the groups use it at similar rates.”

From 2014 to March 2015, they found 297 people killed by police around the country who were unarmed. Of that group, 117 were African-American and 167 were not. “That means 41 percent of unarmed people killed by police during that time in the database (with an identified race) were African-American, far out of proportion in a country that was 14 percent African-American in 2013. Among people who were armed when killed by police and for whom researchers had race data, 25 percent were African-American.”

That finding is fascinating and worth further inquiry.

However, the fact that 297 people last year who were unarmed were killed by police also bears further inquiry.

As many have noted, we don’t have a good statistic, however, on overall killings. Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post wrote on December 1, 2014, “According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, in 2013 there were 461 ‘justifiable homicides’ by police.” However, “The true number of fatal police shootings is surely much higher, however, because many law enforcement agencies do not report to the FBI database. Attempts by journalists to compile more complete data by collating local news reports have resulted in estimates as high as 1,000 police killings a year. There is no way to know how many victims, like Brown, were unarmed.”

So 297 is just the number they counted.

Kami Chavis Simmons, a former federal prosecutor, is a professor and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law, and writes this week, “It is impossible to determine the scope of the problem without a comprehensive national database of the number of people killed by police officers. Although some groups do track when police use serious force, a federal database would help policy makers identify not only dangerous trends and determine whether police use force disproportionately against minorities, but best practices, and thus ultimately develop policies that prevent more deaths.”

The bottom line is we need more data here. I think it is impossible to strip race from this discussion and, since race may be a factor, not particularly helpful. However, I do agree looking at the issue more broadly may gain traction.

We should focus on techniques that police officers can take to de-escalate situations and tactics to deal with individuals who are not cooperating but do not in general represent a true threat to the officer and the public.

In this case, Mr. Slager pulled Mr. Scott over on a routine traffic stop. If Mr. Scott wanted to run away, perhaps theofficer simply should have let him, gotten his information and confronted him later? Was Mr. Scott really a threat to anyone at this point?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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31 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    What it told us is a cop acted badly and committed a murder for which he will be prosecuted for.  Now you can try and insert whatever bias you like, it’s your blog, but those are the facts.

    1. David Greenwald

      Those are two specific facts of the instant-case. And actually, you have only presented one fact: he will be prosecuted. “Acted badly” is a conclusion based on subjective assessments, it is not a fact. I agree with that conclusion, but it is not itself “a fact.” I’m parsing the words because your next sentence was: “Now you can try and insert whatever bias you like, it’s your blog, but those are the facts.”

      The facts are there was a traffic stop, a confrontation, Mr. Scott ran, Mr. Slager shot and killed him.

      What we are discussing are not the facts which at least in this case are not heavily disputed due to the video, but rather the conclusions that should be drawn. You want to draw as narrow a conclusion as possible: this was a cop who acted badly, a guy died, that’s not a good thing, but that’s the end of the story. My version is encompassed within this article in about 2000 words. Reasonable people will disagree. You’re welcome to argue or debate the points raised here or dismiss them summarily as you have.

      1. Barack Palin

        The left tried to run first with the Martin/Zimmerman incident and then the  Brown/Wilson shooting.  Both were shown to be bad examples of what you and your ilk are trying to push so now you have a case where it looks like a cut and dried case of a bad cop and you are going to again push your narrative.  Yes there are some bad cops, this is one, but it in no way proves any point.  So from now on every time a black person gets shot by a white cop you’re going to run multiple stories on it?

        1. David Greenwald

          I agree with you on one point: an anecdote is only an anecdote. That’s why I think the 385.com analysis is important. Also the lack of good data is important.

          To me this story was interesting because the officer didn’t know there was a video and told a false story at first and then got caught in the lie. So from that perspective, the question becomes – how many more cases like this exist (but again this story doesn’t answer that question, it only raises it).

          “So from now on every time a black person gets shot by a white cop you’re going to run multiple stories on it?”

          Probably not. This one certainly got a lot of coverage though elsewhere, you can hardly blame me for running it.

      2. Miwok

        The facts are there was a traffic stop, a confrontation, Mr. Scott ran, Mr. Slager shot and killed him.

        The facts are Mr Scott ran twice, the second time he ran the Taser was in Officer Slager’s hand, then the gun came out after it was knocked out or dropped.

        I think we have not heard the whole story yet, and if the Officer received information about the suspect, it may have not been for “just warrants for unpaid child support”.

        What was said between them?

  2. Tia Will

    The ” I feared for my life” defense is very troubling to me no matter how it is viewed.

    Let’s suppose that in the 297 reported cases of shooting deaths of unarmed individuals the police genuinely “feared for their life”. In this case, it would seem that there is a systemic lack of appropriate training to determine when an individual is truly dangerous and when they are not. Could it be that new processes or instructions would be in order ? For example, perhaps the police could instruct the individual to state prior to any movement where their wallet was and with which hand they would attempt to retrieve it thus lessening the “I thought he was reaching for a gun” interpretation that has been heard when they have instructed the suspect to present ID.  Perhaps officers could be instructed to allow a non dangerous suspect to escape as David stated when they could easily be identified and arrested later.

    Now let’s suppose the opposite. Let’s suppose that the officer had no reason to fear for his life, but has every reason to lie ( or to “protect” himself) by saying that he was fearful. On which are we, as a society, going to place the higher value, the life of the suspect, or the sensibilities and job security of the police officer ?  Because this is the bottom line question that we are being asked to judge.

    1. hpierce

      Tia, I’m glad you apparently never feared for your life, or that of your loved ones.  I have.  I was prepared to use lethal force to prevent injury to a loved one.  I (and the perp) were spared from the “decision point”.  What happened in SC appears to be MURDER.  There is no evidence that the officer should claim he “feared for his life”.  That being said, please don’t dismiss, as a general thought, that sometimes, lethal force is warranted.  Note the difference between ‘lethal  force’ and ‘intent to kill’… those are not equal.  The first is what you might have to do to protect yourself, others.  In SC, the officer appears to have an “intent to kill”.  One shot, maybe.  Eight?  NO!

      1. Tia Will

        hpierce

        Tia, I’m glad you apparently never feared for your life”

        That is quite an assumption to make. I have been attacked several times by patients. I have been threatened by family members who for some reason apparently felt that I would take better care of their loved ones if they intimidated me physically. I have been followed on the street in several bad neighborhoods where I had the misfortunate to live at times. I have feared for my life from needle sticks and other surgical misadventures until the tests for HIV has come back negative. Different people respond to threats differently. The huge difference that I can see in the police situation is that this is a part of their job. This is what they accept that they will do as a part of their job. If it is incapacitating for them, as I have seen the fear be for some residents, then perhaps they need to consider a different line of work. I would say ( and have said this to surgeons in training who could not cope with the fear) this to the police who are either paralyzed or act precipitously out of fear. This is not a matter of inferiority or weakness. It is a matter of being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses and being willing to act accordingly.

        1. hpierce

          Actually Tia, we may have found “common ground”… you have shared elements that I had not seen before… would you have been capable of using ‘lethal force’ when you were attacked, AND FEARED FOR YOUR LIFE  [not “injury]?  I’ve been prepared, but fortunately, didn’t been “put to the test”.  Did you rely on others to protect you in those situations?  How much “training” does it take to not be “human”?  It’s a “human” reaction to fear/avoid death… have you evolved past that?  If so, good for you, I guess, but not so much for others.

          In the case at hand, there appears to be absolutely NO valid reason why the officer acted as he did.  Except, perhaps insanity/sociopathy.  I’ll leave that to others.

  3. Miwok

    I think it is impossible to strip race from this discussion and, since race may be a factor, not particularly helpful. However, I do agree looking at the issue more broadly may gain traction.

    I think you can strip race from this discussion, unless it is your desire to inject it. In the recent video the officer had another officer at the scene, black. He didn’t shoot that guy. He works with him. The black officer may even have been senior to him. So unless you want to inject some racial bias because the PD has a hostile work environment “because he’s white”, I think you need to consider more factors.

    Wouldn’t screenings and trainings reveal pathological or sociological tendencies?

    1. Davis Progressive

      how do you strip race from this discussion when the discussion is unarmed black men getting killed by police under avoidable circumstances?  i don’t know why people constantly bring up the issue of a black commander – when as often as not, black police officers seem to be police officers first.  now, having said that, i will back off that somewhat, i know quite a few black police officers who do not tow company lines, but enough do especially if they are an extreme minority in their department.

      1. Miwok

        know quite a few black police officers who do not tow company lines, but enough do especially if they are an extreme minority in their department.

        Yes, DP, I used to also.

        I did not mention a “Black Commander”. Having said that, the black Police officers are usually on the same page with the rest of the department, because they deal with the same criminals, whatever their race. That is why race should not be in this conversation.

        1. Davis Progressive

          it really depends on the officer.  my only point yesterday how was that just the presence of a black person there doesn’t mean there wasn’t racism involved.  black police officers are times subject to the same stereotypes as the rest of their department.

      2. tribeUSA

        So why confine the discussions to blacks getting killed, why not broaden it to also include instances of whites, hispanics, and asians getting killed by the police? Or what about the recent horse-theif incident in southern California, where the abuse of force on the white guy was on a level as egregious or worse than the famous Rodney King incident?

        But overall David G, you wrote a good article above; a good thoughtful presentation.

         

  4. Frankly

    And that’s just the norm and they see it as protecting themselves from an unreasonable public and unreasonable politicians. Because from the cops’ point of view, they’re asked to do the impossible and when they do it then they’re indicted.”

    The unreasonable politicians are on the Democrat/left side.

    The police unions tend to fund their campaigns.

    More proof that codependency is unhealthy.

        1. Frankly

          Not really.  There is a valid consideration here that transcends partisanship and is simply about the pursuit of power and money.  Democrats and public employee unions have a partnership that they both exploit for gain.  But the glue of that partnership is only the returns of power and money.  When there is power and money to be gained in other ways, the bonds of that partnership begin to fray like a cheap rug.

          Democrats are really stuck without enough of a legitimate political platform to gain and retain power, so they find they have to resort to groupism media warfare… basically ginning up anger in every possible disenfranchised group over anything that they can pin on labels associated with their political opponents.

          Police = white male

          White male = Republican

          Police are bad so Republicans are bad

          Vote for Democrats because they are better

          Saul Alinsky would be proud.

  5. Davis Progressive

    “I think we have not heard the whole story yet, and if the Officer received information about the suspect, it may have not been for “just warrants for unpaid child support”.”

    the problem you have is that the officer lied, so if those things were factors, he should have made those points in his reports, not the lies.

  6. Miwok

    I see the same great reluctance on the part of the public to believe the African American community, because if you believe the African American community you really, really, really have to change your policing culture.

    Sorry to post so much, but because I spent a few years with the uniformed and the prosecutors, I got to ask many questions about these situations. I got an “inside” look, not the happy happy version.

    This statement and largely the whole conversation has been Black vs White, even when this is not the issue. The recent San Bernadino Sheriff chase has been interesting, because no one is mentioning race.

    And what about Hispanic-Americans, or just immigrants in general? Chinese Americans? These insular communities are reluctant to engage with Police of any kind, and the criminals know this. I think the “culture” problem is not just the police.

    1. Robert Canning

      Behavior is a product of many factors, including (and not limited to) development, intellectual capacity, emotional control, attitudes (themselves products of learning and other things), and context. Simply saying “it is all about behavior” leaves a lot out.

      The video is striking but only one part of the picture. We don’t know much from the video about what happened before the brawl given that the video is from a responding police car’s dash cam, not the original police officer, who is there already.

      1. Frankly

        Sorry.  It is about behavior.

        I can’t help but choke on the absurdity of this demand that cops become magic psychologists that can immediately diagnose a person to administer the perfectly nuanced attention… when our education system cannot come close to adequate assessment for all but a handful of behavior types even given their weeks and months getting to know the student.

        1. wdf1

          Frankly:  …our education system cannot come close to adequate assessment for all but a handful of behavior types even given their weeks and months getting to know the student.

          Because they’re focused on trying to figure out how to get the standardized test scores high enough for folks like you.  It’s as absurd as what you would observe for cops.

        2. Robert Canning

          Frankly, it’s not about the cops becoming diagnosticians of others, but through training and experience designing policies and procedures that counteract bias that they bring so that they are not acting under the influence of stereotypes out of their awareness.

        3. Davis Progressive

          robert – i think it’s also about giving police training to be able to deescalate situations before they get out of control.  at some point in the park, it was obvious that scott was being uncooperative, it’s also obvious he’s not a threat.  so why not come back later to his home and deal with the situation?  or why not do what they ultimately did at ucd, and issue a summons to appear in court?  there are only a few times when an officer absolutely has to make the arrest then and there.

  7. Tia Will

    Frankly

    I am not sure what your link of the video is designed to demonstrate. Yes, I agree that it is about behavior. However, from my viewing of the video it certainly looks as though there is room for behavioral improvement on both sides. The adults of the family involved should certainly have complied with the police orders and instructed their children to do so. However, I would also note that things might not have escalated as they did if the police had chosen to  “use their words” instead of immediately resorting to physical means to “separate” the family members. In such a situation, what would be the downside of listening to each individual relay their side of the story respectfully without a forced separation which doubtless would be unnecessarily frightening for an 11 year old.

    I also found the quote from the police officer quite telling. He mentioned multiple means of physical force that had not proven effective. Of note, he did not discuss what verbal techniques had been used prior to the onset of punching, bludgeoning, pepper spraying, and shooting.

    Perhaps Phil would like to weigh in on means to obtain information from a group such as this without provoking either defensive or aggressive actions depending on your point of view.

  8. Tia Will

    hpierce

    would you have been capable of using ‘lethal force’ when you were attacked, AND FEARED FOR YOUR LIFE  [not “injury]? “

    Two thoughts about this question.

    1. I have not had sufficient training in violent situations to know the difference between when my life is threatened vs merely injury, so I cannot ascertain the difference. It would appear to me that the police despite their training in this particular area also cannot always tell when their lives are at risk vs when they are likely to be killed and proceed to act in many recent circumstances with lethal force. The New York choking incident is probably the best example. The officer could have been injured, I doubt he could have been killed in the circumstances by Mr. Gardner, and yet he chose to use lethal force. I believe that police should be trained to a proportional response standard and that they should consider standing down even in the face of non compliance f the suspect is not an apparent threat to civilian or police safety. De escalation of situations should be their default mode, not imposition of maximal force.

    2. What happened in each and every instance in which I have been threatened ( 4 in  which I took the threat very seriously) is that either I, or someone nearby has successfully used de escalation techniques to resolve the issue. One was a patient with his hands around my throat, talked into letting go by another resident, one in which I talked a knife wielding psych patient into putting down her blade, one in which I let a known. bleeding knife fighter simply walk past me by stepping aside when he was bearing down on me, and one in which I convinced the father to be that I would be more valuable to saving his girlfriend and unborn child if he let me into the operating room rather than decking me in the hallway as he was threatening to do. I agree that the police have the responsibility to apprehend dangerous criminals. I do not believe that they have any mandate to shoot fleeing suspects in the back, to use lethal force for the sale of cigarettes, to continue pummeling and kicking a hand cuffed suspect on the ground as we have seen in several recent videos.

    I do not expect the police to have god like powers of situation assessment, nor do I expect them to be trained psychologists. I do expect them to hold to a least amount of force appropriate to the situation standard. And no, if residents in training can de escalate life threatening circumstances for themselves and others, I am sure that this would not be beyond the capabilities of our police if trained to this standard instead of the “good guys vs the bad guys” scenarios that seem to be predominant in current policing….. in the words of the police themselves.

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