Politics & Policy

A Camera Will Mean Justice for Walter Scott

His death at the hands of a police officer appears to be entirely unjustified.

There has been a murder in North Charleston, S.C. The victim was a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott. The killer was a 33-year-old white police officer named Michael T. Slager. The story, as we know it, is harrowing. After Slager pulled Scott over for a broken taillight, the New York Times reports, Scott fled the scene on foot. In pursuit, Slager discharged his taser, which failed to work as intended. Undeterred, Scott continued to run away, which – for some inexplicable reason – provoked Slager into opening fire with his service pistol. Having been hit at least five times, Scott fell to the ground and died. 

The initial witness reports appear to have been wholly incorrect. Calling in the incident, Officer Slager claimed brazenly that Scott had tried to take his Taser, and that he had feared for his life. Offering their account of events, local eyewitnesses suggested that the shots were fired in the course of an ongoing fight. But the video footage tells a rather different story. The available film, the Times confirms, “shows the officer firing eight times” while Scott flees, unarmed. More disturbingly, having finished shooting and holstered his weapon, Slager then appears to plant a Taser by Scott’s side.

Quite what justification could possibly be marshaled in defense of this behavior is unclear — to the point at which we might say confidently, “There is none.” Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court case that governs how police officers must treat those who flee, holds that an agent of the state may use lethal force against an escaping suspect only in such cases as he reasonably concludes that the suspect poses “a significant threat of death or serious physical injury” to himself or to another. To watch the Times’ video is to understand that, at the time he was killed, Walter Scott posed no threat to anybody at all. When Slager raises his gun to shoot, Scott is not only a long, long way away from him, but he also seems to be unarmed. From his position, there is simply no way that he could have delivered a meaningful blow to Slager – or to anyone else, for that matter.

It has been suggested that there may have been a serious fight before the camera started to roll, and that this may have clouded Officer Slager’s judgment. Perhaps. Either way, though, this possibility seems to be something of a red herring. By the standard rules of engagement, Scott’s panicked flight legally concluded any ongoing altercation, his departure from the fight signaling to Officer Slager that he no longer wanted to brawl. Police officers have reasonable latitude. But they are not permitted to shoot later in response to a threat that passed earlier, nor to stretch the definition of “danger” to its breaking point. Frankly, the idea that Slager had somehow “learned” that Scott was inherently dangerous is weak. Scott was unarmed and he was running away. Who, exactly, was he intimidating?

Equally irrelevant are Scott’s various transgressions — committed both before and during his murder. Should he have been running from the officer in the first instance? No, obviously not. Should he have paid his child support and responded to his many court summonses? Indeed he should. Is it normal for motorists to foment imbroglios over tail-light violations. Hardly. But men are imperfect, and this one made a few poor choices. He did not deserve to be killed for them.

All in all, this seems to be the case that we have been hearing about for a long, long while now — that much-previewed-but-never-quite-forthcoming case in which the white cop unnecessarily guns down the unarmed black man who is trying in earnest to get away. This is that case in which the 80 percent white police force takes a life from the 47 percent black city; in which the small infraction leads to the fatal consequence; in which there are no wrinkles to complicate the complaint. This, in other words, is what the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were not.

That being so, that Officer Slager was almost immediately charged with murder should be noted with keen interest. Naturally, an indictment will not bring Walter Scott back. Nor, indeed, will post hoc punishments do much to dispel the fears of those among us who are convinced that the United States is an irredeemably racist nation. But that a harsh indictment was swiftly forthcoming should be recognized, and valued, nevertheless. The claim that police officers in America are able to kill with impunity has become a popular one of late – offered, usually, alongside the false contention that whites have declared “open season” on black males. It should not be casually endorsed. When there are no cameras, the advantage goes to the shooter. That, I’m afraid, is the inevitable product of a system that privileges the presumption of innocence, and, ultimately, it is an argument for more cameras rather than less justice. Where there are cameras, however, the playing field is leveled. In this case, with the evidence clear as day, the powers-that-be were keen to assure all and sundry that there are consequences for iniquities such as these, and that they are grave. 

There has been a murder in North Charleston, S.C.. But there have been punitive measures, too. For Officer Slager, crime will meet punishment and decision will meet ramification. That’s something, at least.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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