Walter Scott’s Killing Is a Direct Result of the Current State of Policing in America Today

Scott-WalterBy Ezekiel Edwards

It’s déjà vu. And it’s also a nightmare.

Police gunning down unarmed black men and boys is an American horror film that keeps getting replayed. Except that it isn’t a movie you can turn off: It’s a painful, outrageous, and unacceptable reality.

The latest iteration is the execution of Walter Scott – pulled over for a traffic violation, and who allegedly owed child support – by a South Carolina police officer. As Scott ran away from the officer, four bullets slammed into his back and one hit his ear. After the shooting, he walked calmly over to Mr. Scott’s body, lying in the grass – and then, for good measure, handcuffed him.

Why was Walter Scott killed? Why does this keep happening?

Did we not just see a South Carolina police officer shoot Levar Jones for trying to retrieve his driver’s license at the officer’s request at a gas station? Did we not just watch Eric Garner, an unarmed man, choked to death in Staten Island while being arrested for selling cigarettes on the street? Are we not still grappling with 12-year-oldTamir Rice being shot and killed in a Cleveland park while playing with a toy gun within seconds of police arriving? Did we not just recoil from images of Michael Brown’s lifeless body left unattended in the street for hours?

Have we not recently heard the testimony of Milton Hall’s mother recalling how her son’s life ended in a barrage of 45 bullets in Saginaw, Michigan? What about the killing of Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, shot 14 times after an altercation with the police because he was sleeping in a park? Or John Crawford in a Walmart near Dayton, Ohio, gunned down for picking up a BB gun in the sporting goods section?

The list is long, and yet there are hundreds more that haven’t gone viral online or been caught on video.

The tsunami of incidents of police brutality against communities of color has further frayed America’s trust and confidence in police departments to achieve their singular function in our society: to serve and to protect our families and communities. The slaying of Walter Scott shows that all too often the police perform the opposite function, by terrorizing and profiling people of color.

And for what?

Steps to halt this parade of horrors have been taken, but we’re not there yet. We have a long way to go. Recommendations put forth by the President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing, DOJ’s announcement of resources for pilot sites in six cities aimed at strengthening the bonds between police and citizens, reports of and recommendations to end jaw-dropping racial profiling and selective enforcement of low-level offenses in communities of color – all of these are important efforts. Yet the number of tragic and avoidable killings of people of color continues to mount.

In addition to the steps above, police departments need to shed their abusive and profiling pasts and recommit themselves to the communities they are responsible for serving. This promise must be grounded in the principle of dignity and respect for the community. Police must see their departments and officers as part of the fabric of the community. Police departments need to reconsider their enforcement priorities and to start treating arrests as rare commodities to be used sparingly.

Our country’s addiction to arrests and incarceration has created fear in poorer communities of being arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses, prompting interactions with police that we have seen time and again escalate quickly into unnecessary tragedies. A moment of conjecture: If Walter Scott does not fear that a routine traffic stop or owing money is going to lead to his arrest and possible imprisonment, does he flee from the officer? Is he alive today?

Police need robust training for police officers on de-escalation techniques, relegating force to a last resort. Force should be understood on a continuum that allows for only the minimum force necessary in any given situation. Police need to ban racial profiling, provide implicit bias trainings, and train officers on how to practice procedural justice. When officers or departments violate policy or break the law, those departments and state officials must hold the responsible parties accountable.

We welcome the swift action in this case by North Charleston – undoubtedly propelled here only by the existence of a damning video – in bringing charges against the police officer. Video or no video, prompt investigation and appropriate action following a police shooting – just as with any possible crime –should be the rule nationwide, not the exception.

But these incidents are more than just bad-apple cops: The problem of unjustified lethal force is endemic.

Sadly, we only know part of the story because we have no uniform, comprehensive reporting requirements of police shootings. The data just doesn’t exist. Indeed, even after the many discussions of police force generated by these incidents in recent months, and notwithstanding the DOJ’s documentation of widespread problems around use of force in Cleveland and the use of unreasonable force and racial profiling in Ferguson, we have not been able to reconcile the mandate of fair, constitutional, and humane law enforcement with the current status of American policing.

The unjustified killings of unarmed people of color by police, often arising from racial profiling or enforcement of minor offenses, continue with reckless and tragic abandon. The steps taken by DOJ are very important, but much, much more needs to be done.

Walter Scott should be alive, and at home. Instead, he’s dead. His death is not an aberration. It is a direct result of the current state of policing in many parts of America today.

Ezekiel Edwards is the Director of ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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23 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    Police need robust training for police officers on de-escalation techniques, relegating force to a last resort. Force should be understood on a continuum that allows for only the minimum force necessary in any given situation.”

    I would take this just a little further. Regardless of the races of the individuals involved, and with the keen sense of “first, do no harm” acquired from my own training, I would suggest that the police employ these principles:

    1. Given the police mandate to protect our citizens, the police response should always be in proportion to the degree of threat to the society or the officer, not to his perception that he is not being obeyed. Thus, cigarette sales….no choke hold. Running away with no history or witnessed action to suggest danger…..no gun drawn. Sitting across a pathway…..no pepper spray. Regardless of how frustrated, angry or disrespected the officer may feel.

    2. It should be ok to let a non violent suspect temporarily escape custody. The officer in this case had the man’s identification. He could have been arrested later and charged with resisting arrest if desired. This is true in a number of the recent cases where the identity was known.

    3. Fear should not be a default excuse for use of excessive force or for delay. This has allowed for the very subjective defense of “fear for one’s life” to excuse both over reaction and potentially, lack of action. Fear seems to have become a mainstay within the realm of the police used as a justification not only for the use of force in particular situations, but also in determining how to plan for future potential events. I see this as a danger because fear based decisions replace rationale, evidence based decision making to our detriment.

    Would we want this kind of thinking to apply to medical decision making? Take a scenario where a close relative is hemorrhaging and only immediate surgery will save them. Do you want the surgeon on call to operate immediately….or would you find it reasonable for them wait several hours for a rapid HIV test to be done to determine whether it was safe for her to proceed ( not for the patient, but for herself !) ? Or on the other side of the equation, would you want to be placed in a choke hold, or shot because the doctor “felt threatened” by your empassioned pleas for urgent action. ( And yes, I have been threatened by desperate family members).

    1. Biddlin

      Most cops took the job for the prestige, high pay, cool equipment and sexual opportunities, with minimal education requirements. They are action oriented and not prone to detailed analysis or deep introspection.

      What you are suggesting is a “culture change” that is antithetical to the nature of the beast.

      ;>)/

      1. Tia Will

        What you are suggesting is a “culture change” that is antithetical to the nature of the beast.”

        Everything that you said about police was also true about doctors except for the education requirement until about 30 years ago. Then there started a dramatic culture change which has been largely embraced by doctors. No longer is it acceptable for doctors to throw temper tantrums, throw instruments, verbally abuse those lower on the medical hierarchy and basically tell patients what they were and were not going to do to and for them. Doctors have had to accept, rightfully so ,that they are not gods that can trample on everyone else according to their whims. For some, it was natural. For others, it was a very painful process. It can be difficult, but it is an essential change and we should expect no less from our police.

  2. hpierce

    “The problem of unjustified lethal force is endemic.”  Ok, let’s look at some numbers, just for fun.  What percentage of folk are police, of some type?  How many police officers do we have in Davis?  30?  What is our population? 60-70 k? Let’s use 60 k.  So, 0.05 % of the population are PD.  The current population of the US is ~ 318 million.  So, 0.0005 X 318,000,000 = 159,000 police officers.  How many contacts by police officers have in a given year that involve “lethal force”?  Don’t know, but if it was one-tenth of one percent, that would be ~159.  Endemic?  Should we make all good attempts to make the number as low as possible?  ABSOLUTELY!

  3. Napoleon Pig IV

    “Endemic” is an appropriate word, and it’s inexcusable that more complete and reliable (as in non-manipulated) numbers are not available. Just two or three days ago, white officers in New Jersey sicced a police dog on an unarmed black man who was already on the ground and encouraged the dog to bite him. He later died of his injuries. In addition, the cops tried to intimidate a bystander into handing over his cell phone – which I assume he did not do since the story is now out. Sure, this is just one more “anecdote,” but how many fraudulent police reports and back-room cover ups are out there?

    Yes, the majority of police, like the majority of people are honest, decent, and trustworthy. However, that doesn’t mean that the odds are not skewed way against fairness for many African-American and Hispanic people (as they  were for many Asians until fairly recently). Clearly we need to value our police, but that means we need to pay them well and educate them well – and we clearly don’t.

    Racism is stupid. There is certainly no biological basis for it other than delusional ideation and insecurity.

    Further complicating the problem is the racially neutral fact that we have too many victimless acts defined as crimes, and too many minions of a constantly expanded Porcine Pinnacle of Power (a.k.a government) with incentives to be corrupt, power-mongering parasites. It’s way past time for restless and action-focused sheep to take charge of getting rid of that “. . . but some are more equal than others” part of the “All animals are equal. . .” barnyard rule. Oink!

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    I wouldn’t smear a whole profession based on a handful of examples (anecdotes) while also not noting that our nation wide murder rate also dropped by fifty percent recently.

    This topic is beat to death here, yet I don’t think I’ve seen a single article which addresses the explosion of gangs in America the past 3 decades.

    I haven’t seen a single article which deals with the full-force movement of M13, the Nortenos, Sorenos, and other foreign gangs who bring dangerous drugs across our southern border.

    Where are the articles which bemoan citizens who gun down police officers?

    Watch the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington to get a glimpse of the underworld the police have to deal with sometimes on a daily basis. And the Lefties will love the confab of underworld police and legal leaders who are on the take.

  5. Tia Will

    I wouldn’t smear a whole profession based on a handful of examples (anecdotes)”

    And neither would I. However, I think that what we have here is more than a “handful of anecdotes”. And when the “anecdotes” that we do have death of an individual who was demonstrating no dangerous behaviors, then what we have are the equivalents of the canaries in the coal mine. I think that these incidents should be seen as serious “wake up calls”.

    At a minimum I think that there should be independent civilian and police review panels of all police actions that involve significant injury or death to the person being apprehended. If those who defend the police are correct, this would reinforce their impression that the police are doing a good and appropriate job and this would add to transparency and possibly strengthen police community relations. If polices abuses were found to be common as some are contending, training and cultural changes should be implemented and communities could be assured that these changes are being put into effect. Either way there would seem to be advantages for both the police and the communities that they serve.

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    No posting on the recent 8-9 Sheriffs Deputy’s who beat the hell out of a guy who stole a horse? It’s all on tape (4 minutes).

    – When they catch him and shoot him with a tazer, he lays prone, and puts his hands behind his back.

    – He is repeatedly beaten, kicked, and hit with a billy club.

    – TV anchor claims 31 shots to the head; I see several kicks to the groin.

    – He doesn’t threaten them, and there are 8-9-10 officers.

    – The man is white, as are most of the deputies; I see one black officer, but don’t see him take a swing or kick on what is posted here (see below).

    – Deputies don’t let the girlfriend even know where he is, but they are worried that several of the deputies are suffering from lack of water (from beating on the guy too much).

    http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Man-on-Stolen-Horse-Stunned-by-Sheriffs-Deputies-in-IE-299250951.html

    It is possible that some or much of this police behavior is rouge, but not racist.

    Apparently, it looks like a lawyer claims they weren’t fearful of being exposed as they thought it was a police helicopter, they didn’t know it was a news chopper.

    1. tribeUSA

      yes, there are many other such examples of police abuse of white people as well as hispanics, asians, and people of all races.

      It seems to me by spinning particular incidents of abuse of force as a racial issue (in the absence of representative reliable nationwide data that can be rigorously evaluated) detracts from the larger issue of excessive use of force in much of modern policing, a least by a small percentage of police officers. I don’t know how endemic or epidemic this problem is, but it certainly seems to be a growing problem, and we should definitely strive to keep the number of such incidents from growing, and minimize their occurrence. But by spinning it as a racial issue, this turns off most Americans to this problem; seeing it as just another example of race-baiting ( the racist-white-man-evil-oppressor-of-blacks narrative, which most americans are heartily sick of hearing).

  7. PhilColeman

    I’ve been summarily judged to be a shallow thinker, thrill seeker, and having minimal education attainment, that makes me totally unqualified to speak about the current state of US policing, even though apparently everybody else is, and have no deficiencies in doing so. Oh, and I’m still waiting for those “sexual opportunities” and my wife is probably watching closely as well.

    In reality (anybody ready for that?), quibbling over how an unacceptable police action is representative of the larger body is a waste of time. We become consumed, to no good purpose, on whether is reflects a fraction of a percent of the larger whole, or maybe a small whole number of a total percent. If this behavior was “typical,” or “representative,” or “endemic,” we’d not be talking about it, because it is all these quoted adjectives. It would be routine, to use another false generalization.

    Instead, to correct whatever the number or percentage is, let’s agree that one is too many. Why did it happen, and what measures can be implemented to minimize it happening again? No, we’ll never achieve perfection since most of us know no human performance of any duration is ever perfect.

    Since I possess the solution for everything, being the one perfect human, how about this for a start? Recognizing that the recent police abuses came to the public awareness level as the result of photo documentation of some kind, the police profession can take the following pre-emptive strike: The International Association of Chief’s of Police issue a plea to the public that everybody who possesses cell-phone photography record any police/citizen encounter they witness. The only caveat is that the recording must be from such a distance that the verbal exchange is not captured (privacy concerns), just the visual interaction.

     

  8. Tia Will

    tribe USA

    It seems to me by spinning particular incidents of abuse of force as a racial issue (in the absence of representative reliable nationwide data that can be rigorously evaluated) detracts from the larger issue of excessive use of force in much of modern policing”

    But by spinning it as a racial issue, this turns off most Americans to this problem; seeing it as just another example of race-baiting “

    I think that your post combines two factors in an untenable manner. Regardless of whether reliable nationwide data are available, any given single incident may or may not be based on racial bias. It is just as wrong to assume that there was no racial bias, as to assume that there is. Without the specifics of the incident ( and indeed without personal communication or witnesses of blatant racism – such as the SFPD texts or epithets being heard while a beating is occurring) it would be almost impossible to prove racal bias since the perpetrator is extremely unlikely to confess even if it is true.

    Also, I think that it is a little presumptuous to claim to know how “most Americans” feel about the issue. I suspect there is a very broad spectrum of how Americans feel about anti minority bias on the part of the police and the very use of the term “race baiting” says more about your non objectively derived view on this issue than it does about the feelings of the preponderance of Americans.

    1. tribeUSA

      Tia–Re: “I suspect there is a very broad spectrum of how Americans feel about anti minority bias on the part of the police”

      I don’t disagree with that statement, and I refine my own statement slightly to assert that most Americans are well aware that there is an element of race-baiting in the mainstream media reports of many such incidents, and in statements by politicos and activists; just as most Americans are well aware that there are some racist views that are held by some Americans, ranging from preference or slight bias to the views of the supremacists of all races. I also don’t disagree with your statement that this is a somewhat presumptuous assertion on my part, but I stand by it, as my intuition about such matters in the past has often (not always) turned out to be correct; call it tuning an ear and eye to the zeitgeist. My assertion certainly has merit higher than the level of that of many politicos and activists, trumpeted in the press, that there is systematic bias against minorities nationwide by the police, based not on comprehensive scientifically designed statistical studies (the only reliable way to test for such systematic bias), but on anecdotes where a white police officer uses excessive force on a black person, and racism is immediately attributed to the act before any evidence is gathered.

      My assertion is consistent with recent polls showing that most americans feel that race relations have gotton worse in the USA during the Obama presidency, rather than better. Or is this because most people feel that the police and other authorities have been getting more racist over the past 6 years?

       

  9. Tia Will

    Hi Phil,

    I’ve been summarily judged to be a shallow thinker, thrill seeker, and having minimal education attainment, that makes me totally unqualified to speak about the current state of US policing”

    By whom, under what circumstances , and with what supportive documentation ?  I think we all have the right to know !  ; )

  10. Frankly

    “execution, The tsunami of incidents, police brutality against communities of color, slaying, terrorizing, parade of horrors, jaw-dropping racial profiling, abusive, problem of unjustified lethal force is endemic…”

    My oh my… such creative use of emotive language could not be found even in a character dialog from a John Lescroart novel.

    The poster of this article makes some good points and recommendations, unfortunately though he/she demonstrates the hostile, one-sided, self-servicing, over-steering demands that tend to prevent any reasonable collaborative solutionizing.

    I was thinking today about the popular book “What Color is Your Parachute”, and my decades of experience working to help find, hire and retain people in jobs that are a best fit for them and the organization.  And similar decades of experience working to create optimum policy and procedures to strike that ever-shifting required balance of organizational service quality and value.

    Then I was thinking about this challenge as it relates to the job of policing.

    Is there a more difficult challenge in any other profession?  I think not. Teaching is possibly next… but it is not even close.

    The innate wiring and capabilities of people vastly vary.  There are the hard technical skill that must be learned and put to use, and then there are the soft skills like communication, conflict, negotiation and relationship-building.

    What is that profile that makes for a good cop?  Are we sufficiently defining it and vetting it?  Are we able to move quickly enough when hiring mistakes occur (and they happen despite the most rigorous vetting) can we quickly terminate that employee and send them to find a more suitable career?

    From my perspective, I think we are underestimating the challenge.  The personality profile of the average person that pursues a job in law enforcement might not be optimum today.   However, there might not be enough people alive that have the optimum personality profile.  We seem to be demanding cops be Superman and Wonder Woman while also being Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

    I believe we are at a crucible point in thinking about law enforcement and how it must be reformed.   However, we need to be factual and objective about the job requirements and the type of people we need to do the job.  And with this understanding we should also accept that policing will be messy sometimes because it is a complex job dealing with the messiest situations that society has to offer.

    And while we are working on this, let’s do the same with education.  First, because it should be easier to reform than it will be to reform law enforcement.  Second, because it is more broken than is law enforcement.  And third, because fixing education will go a long way to lesson the mess in society that makes the job of law enforcement so much more difficult.

    1. tribeUSA

      Frankly–good post, and balance to the bad pr that police have gotton lately (although there are certainly some instances where cops have used unnecessarily excessive force, egregiously in the recent cases of the black man in Carolina and the white man in southern California–and I think these cops should be held to account), in the absence of data that shows otherwise my guess is grossly excessive/unjustified use of force is employed only by a very small % of police officers and only a small percentage of the time. I suspect that video cameras worn by cops will demonstrate that there is a much higher level of rude, hostile, and obnoxious behavior towards cops than by cops; however I also suspect that the news and politicos will only trumpet those instances where a cop exhibits bad behavior.

      It would be interesting to see some TV investigative reports where a variety of policeman are interviewed in depth about what kind of pressures they face on the job (I suspect in order to speak frankly the officers would need to be retired; find some recently retired ones ready to go public!); and if their jobs are getting more easy or more difficult over the past decade or so, and for what reasons.

      1. Tia Will

        tribeUSA

        in the absence of data that shows otherwise my guess is grossly excessive/unjustified use of force is employed only by a very small % of police officers and only a small percentage of the time.”

        I totally agree that what we have is a paucity of data. I find it interesting however that you are willing to “guess” in favor of the police without that data. This is true even in the face of exactly the kind of evidence that you say is needed such as comments by Frank Serpico who clearly does not feel that lying and use of excessive force are rare occurrences on the part of the police, or the evidence provided in the comment on a recent thread by a police officer who stated that what civilians call “lying” the police regard as self preservation.

        Add to this the fact that the reason that we do not have data is a culture of non-collection and cover ups on the part of the police ( or at least the perception thereof ) due to a culture of secrecy rather than one of transparency and what you have is a system ripe for abuse. I know since I have watched medicine evolve out of this type of system over the past 30 years.

        1. tribeUSA

          Absolutely I agree with Tia and DG, more data is needed! Given the level of social concern regarding this issue, I would fully support a program to help police stations archive their data on police shootings (and eventually, all arrest data) in a uniform format, that can be accessed and easily  reviewed by the FBI and DOJ for auditing. Then a comprehensive statistical study can be done–would be a large and complex project. Seems to me the FBI and/or CDC might be appropriate agencies to spearhead and steer the study, with input from other agencies and statistical consultants. Because it might be difficult to find a nonbiased third party to perform the investigation alone, several parties can be involved with the design, analysis, and interpretations (e.g. ACLU can be one such party, conservative interest groups another party, and other groups involved), with the FBI having oversight authority to decide how to best design the study, choose the best methods of analyses, and present the interpretations of results including a range of viewpoints from the various parties involved. By having parties at odds such as the ACLU and conservative interest groups involved, each side will keep the other more honest, and straying too far into gross absurd bias.

          Until then, we are all just guessing as to how much systematic bias there is in police shootings and abuse of force in usa policing.

  11. zaqzaq

    David,

    I have noticed that you continue to be an advocate of restorative justice in recent cases and when criticizing the DA.  How would you use restorative justice to resolve the Scott case?  How would that impact the prosecution of the police officer?

    1. David Greenwald

      Good question. For lower level offenses, I think restorative justice can at times replace sentencing. That’s obviously not the case in murder cases. I will note that the case in Florida, the restorative justice process ended up reducing the sentence from 20 years to 10 years by request of the victim’s family. But that was unusual. In this case, you would have a victim-offender reconciliation where the family and the officer meet and discuss what happened and the former officer can understand the harms. In the Florida case, part of what the family wanted was that the victim not have died in vain and so they attached to the process stipulations that the offender had to work with other teens about violence within a relationship. In this case, I could see the family having the officer work with other departments on ways to avoid officer related shootings. That could be a very powerful effort – unfortunately, I don’t think it will go that way.

      1. zaqzaq

        David,

        It can also be post sentencing or part of a post prison re-entry program.  Neither of which have any impact on the charges filed by the DA, the crime(s) the defendant is convicted of or the sentence imposed by the judge.  I went back to the article by Laura Rea that you posted.  In any of these instances, regardless of the stage of the criminal proceedings, the victim or victims family if deceased, must be willing to participate.  Is it fair to allow a completely different sentence for one defendant if the victim is willing to participate and another where the victim is not willing to participate?  Shouldn’t our system of justice strive to treat everyone equally.  I would not think that you could order a victim or their family to participate in a restorative justice process.  It could take years before they are ready if ever to meet with the defendant.  Thoughts?

        1. David Greenwald

          Yeah, that’s a key point I think. Much of the time a victim-offender reconciliation is going to take place years later whereas the case in Florida was pre-sentencing. That’s certainly going to be something that has to be worked out.

        2. hpierce

          “Shouldn’t our system of justice strive to treat everyone equally“… that’s a tough one… at first blush, no question, YES.  But… take the Gonzalez case… change one or two issues… same crashes, same death, same attempting to leave the scene… what if instead of epilepsy (chronic) the driver was an alcoholic, with same history of crashes?  what if instead of those causes, the driver was distraught because they were just notified that their spouse and young child had been involved in a car crash and were both in the ER, and they were rushing to be there?  What if the driver was texting their spouse/child? What if they were using their cell phone to view pornography, and was ‘distracted”?  

          I have no answers, but you ask a damn good question, and the struggle with “equal” will indeed be a “struggle”.

          The more I think of this, my heart goes out to all the families involved, and the jurors.  Even given the short deliberations, bet there was a struggle there, as well.

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