Law & the Courts

If Obama’s DOJ Really Wants to Improve Community Relations with Police, It Should Stay Out of South Carolina

State law-enforcement authorities in South Carolina have filed murder charges against Michael Slager, the North Charleston police officer who killed 50-year-old Walter Scott by shooting him several times, mostly in the back as Scott was fleeing. Slager is currently being held without bail, has been fired by the police department, and faces a potential death sentence, or a term of 30 years to life in prison, if convicted.

That, moreover, is just on a murder charge. There appears to be considerable evidence that Slager also obstructed justice. Officials are investigating whether he moved his Taser from the scene of an initial scuffle with Scott to the scene several yards away where Scott lay dying — an apparent effort to plant corroboration for his false radio report that Scott had seized his Taser during the scuffle.

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It has been reported that the Justice Department has also launched a civil-rights investigation. That is poor judgment.

As I’ve previously argued in connection with other cases involving fatal confrontations between police and black people, the mere fact that a police officer is white and the victim is black is not a basis for commencing a civil-rights investigation. To open an investigation on that thin reed is racial profiling – exactly what the Justice Department claims to oppose and what the civil-rights laws forbid.

Regrettably, we’ve become inured to this impropriety. In the Ferguson case, for example, even some normally sensible people opined that it was sensible for the Justice Department to jump into state cases that have “racial overtones” — even in the absence of actual evidence of racial animus. They rationalized that it served the greater good to assure the affected community that a serious, credible investigation was underway. This is misguided.

First, it is not a “greater good” to appease a community by violating an individual’s rights — the point of individual rights is protection from the community’s misuse of state power. Second, there is usually no basis to believe that a state will fail to do a credible investigation if not prodded by the Justice Department. For one thing, there will almost always be a civil suit by the victim’s family, so there is a judicial check on state misbehavior. For another, the state is the place that has to live with the strife caused by police misconduct and thus has a powerful motive to convince the community that it is investigating with due zeal.

Moreover, given the Obama Justice Department’s history of racially discriminatory politicization of law enforcement, there is no reason to believe its investigations are more credible than those conducted by state law enforcement.

In any event, the authorities in South Carolina have very swiftly filed a severe charge: murder. There is no indication that they needed to be pushed into it by the Justice Department — they did it because that was the just thing to do.

The Times notes that President Obama has sent Attorney General Eric Holder “to cities around the country to try to improve police relations with minority neighborhoods.” But the way to maintain good police-community relations is for the police and state prosecutors to show the community that they will act decisively and with dispatch when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing. It does not help – it actually has the opposite effect – to intimate to the community that the state authorities cannot be trusted unless the Justice Department intervenes.

If there were any federal-law violations arising out of Mr. Scott’s killing, years-long statutes of limitations apply to them. In the unlikely event the state botches the homicide case, there will be ample time and legal authority for the feds to do a civil-rights investigation. On that score, if there is any proof that the killing was motivated by racial animus and that Slager intended to deprive Scott of his rights, that will surely be uncovered in the state investigation. After all, the FBI is assisting the state investigators, as it routinely does in cases like this one.

If there is a basis for federal charges and a need to bring them, that will emerge in time. For now, though, the best thing the Justice Department can do is back off and let South Carolina do its work.

We can argue all day about whether officials in Ferguson or Staten Island really don’t think “Black Lives Matter.” But that theme and the accompanying “no justice, no peace” chants were prompted by the lack of arrests while state authorities first conducted lengthy investigations and then ultimately chose not to file indictments. My point is not to rehash the pros and cons of these judgment calls. It is to observe that the situation is drastically different in South Carolina. It took the state only a few hours to take serious, patently justified action once video of the shooting emerged.

South Carolina deserves the opportunity to show the community that its legal system is not only capable of delivering justice for all, but that it wants and is determined to deliver justice for all.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

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