Citizens’ videos raise questions over police tactics

Police officer charged with murder remained in force despite earlier complaint of excessive force

A white South Carolina police officer was charged with murder on Tuesday (April 7) after a video showed him shooting eight times at the back of a 50-year-old black man who was running away. VIdeo: Reuters

 

Nothing has done more to fuel the debate in America over police tactics than the dramatic, sometimes grisly videos: A man gasping “I can’t breathe” through a police chokehold on Staten Island, New York; a 12-year-old boy shot dead in a park in Cleveland. And now, perhaps the starkest video yet, showing a South Carolina police officer shooting a fleeing man in the back.

The videos have spurred calls from statehouses to the White House for more officers to attach cameras to their uniforms. While cameras frequently exonerate officers in shootings, the recent spate of videos has raised uncomfortable questions about how much the American criminal justice system can rely on the accounts of police officers when the cameras are not rolling.

“Everyone in this business knows that cops have been given the benefit of the doubt,” said Hugh Keefe, a Connecticut lawyer who has defended several police officers accused of misconduct. “They’re always assumed to be telling the truth, unless there’s tangible evidence otherwise.”

In the South Carolina fatal shooting, the most compelling evidence, provided by a bystander with a camera phone, was shaky and at times unfocused.

But the video clearly showed the officer, Michael Slager, firing eight times as Walter Scott (50) tried to flee after a traffic stop. The officer had said he fired amid a scuffle, when Scott seized his stun gun and the officer feared for his safety.

“Without the video, we wouldn’t know what we know,” said Matthew Rabo, a college student who joined a demonstration on Wednesday outside City Hall in North Charleston, where the officer in the shooting now faces a murder charge. “And what we know here is really significant: It’s the difference between an officer doing his job and an officer killing a man in cold blood.”

Many cities have installed cameras in their police cruisers for years, and some - an estimated 25 per cent of departments that responded to a 2013 survey - require so-called body cameras. Those numbers are dwarfed by the millions of Americans who carry camera-equipped cellphones. As cameras become ubiquitous, the digital video is likely to become a go-to source of impartial evidence in much the same way that DNA did in the 1990s.

It has emerged that Mr Slager, the police officer who has been charged with the murder of Walter Scott, was allowed to stay on the force despite an earlier complaint that he used excessive force against an unarmed man.

When asked about his reaction to learning Mr Slager had been charged with murder, Mario Givens said: “It [the murder] could have been prevented. If they had just listened to me and investigated what happened that night, this man might be alive today.”

Mr Givens said he was woken before dawn one morning in September 2013 by loud banging on the front door of his family’s home in North Charleston, South Carolina.

On his front porch was Patrolman Michael Slager, the same officer now charged over the fatal shooting of Walter Scott. Wearing only a T-shirt and boxer shorts, Mr Givens, who is also black, said he opened his door by a crack and asked the officer what he wanted.

“He said he wanted to come in, but didn’t say why,” Mr Givens (33) said. “He never said who he was looking for.” Then, without warning, Slager pushed in the door, he said.

“‘Come outside or I’ll Tase you,‘” he recalled the officer saying as he burst in. “I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I raised my arms over my head, and when I did, he Tased me in my stomach anyway,” he said.

Mr Givens said the pain from the stun gun was so intense that he dropped to the floor and began calling for his mother Bessie, who was also in the home. Another police officer came into the house and they dragged him outside and threw him to the ground. He was then handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car.

Though initially accused of resisting the officers, Mr Givens was later released without charge.

It transpired that the police officers had gone to the family’s home at the behest of his brother Matthew’s ex-girlfriend, who earlier reported waking up in her nearby house to find Matthew Givens in her bedroom, uninvited.

Mario Givens went to police headquarters the following day and filed a formal complaint. He and his mother said several neighbours who witnessed what happened on the family’s front lawn also contacted police, but officers refused to take their statements.

The incident report from that night filed by Slager and the other officer, Maurice Huggins, provides a very different version of events. In the report Slager wrote that he could not see one of Mr Givens’ hands and feared he might be holding a weapon.

He said he observed sweat on Mr Givens’ shirt, which he perceived as evidence he may have just run from Ms Brown’s home, and then ordered him to come out several times.

When Mr Givens did not obey, Slager said he entered the home to prevent him from fleeing and was then forced to use his stun gun when Mr Givens struggled against him. According to the officers’ report, the Givens brothers are described as looking “just alike”.

After Mario Givens filed his complaint, the department opened an internal investigation. A brief report included in Slager’s personnel file said a senior officer was assigned to investigate. After a couple of weeks, the case was closed with a notation that Slager was “exonerated”.

New York Times and PA