The killing of Walter Scott: when the truth comes into focus

‘Feidin Santana’s video is shocking, incontrovertible evidence that police shoot unarmed black men in America’

A placard is tied to a fence outside the vacant lot where Walter Scott was killed  in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 8th.  Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A placard is tied to a fence outside the vacant lot where Walter Scott was killed in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 8th. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

 

Walter Scott is not the first African-American whose killing at the hands of white police officers was caught on camera. But he may be the most significant.

In just the last year, videos captured the fatal struggle Eric Garner had with police who had placed him under arrest and in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes in New York, and the shooting death of 12- year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

In those cases, the police seemed to overreact or, in Rice’s case, act too rashly, firing at the boy who had been playing with a replica gun almost as soon as they encountered him.

What is most disturbing about the killing of Scott is how deliberate it was, how calmly a 33-year-old police officer named Michael Slager drew his weapon and levelled it. As the 50-year-old Scott, overweight and hardly fleet of foot, ran away Slager began firing from a distance of about six metres. Slager fired eight shots at him, pausing before firing the final shot. Several of those shots hit Scott in the back and he stumbled and collapsed in a heap.

Even more disturbing is the nonchalance that followed. Slager moved toward Scott with no great urgency. When he finally got to Scott’s side, rather than render medical assistance to the mortally wounded Scott, Slager demanded that Scott place his hands behind his back so he could handcuff him.

It is only when Slager realised that he needed something to justify what he just did that he showed any sense of urgency, running back to retrieve the stun gun that was on the ground where they had first struggled.

Then the video shows Slager calmly walking back to drop the stun gun right next to Scott, whose face was buried in the grass where he fell. Almost as disturbing, the video shows the second officer on the scene, who is black and only slightly more interested in Scott’s condition.

It is possible that Slager’s claims would have unravelled in the face of a forensics investigation. A forensics examination that is routine in any fatal shooting would have established that the shots that killed Scott were not fired at close range, indicating a struggle, but from a distance, as he and any potential threat he posed to the officer retreated.

But there are few in North Charleston, South Carolina, and certainly no African- Americans, who believe that truth would have emerged without that video. Who could blame them?

Mobile phone video

The bystander who shot the video on his mobile

phone, 23-year-old Feidin Santana, had seen Slager and Scott struggling on the ground just before he began filming. Santana said Slager was in control of the situation and Scott was trying to get away after Slager had shot him with the stun gun, called a Taser.

Santana’s contemporaneous commentary as he filmed the shooting, filled with expletives and incredulity, spoke for a nation.

It wasn’t until after Santana gave the video to Scott’s family, and the family’s attorney showed the video to an outside law-enforcement agency, that Slager was arrested and charged with murder. Until then, the official version was that Slager had fired because he was in legitimate fear for his life after Scott tried to turn the stun gun on him.

Santana’s video is shocking, incontrovertible evidence that police shoot unarmed black men in the United States. There appeared to be room for people to reasonably disagree about the threat 18- year-old Michael Brown posed to the police officer who shot him to death in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, touching off riots there and protests across the US.

Nothing to justify shooting

There is no such room for debate in the shooting of

Scott. Slager stopped him for driving with a broken tail light. A routine check found some warrants for Scott’s failure to make child support payments, and the presumption is the two men struggled when Scott realised he was going to be arrested and ran.

But there is absolutely nothing that Slager can claim to justify shooting Scott in the back from such a distance.

Scott’s shooting, or, more precisely, the video that captured his shooting, will spur the movement to put body cameras on police officers. Currently, about a quarter of American police departments have some form of video device attached to either police officers or the dashboards of their vehicles.

While the common assumption is that such cameras will deter police officers from shooting or beating anyone without justification, many police leaders believe that cameras will more often exonerate police officers accused of brutality or overstepping their authority.

New York police commissioner Bill Bratton told me he wants a body camera on each of the city’s 35,000 police officers.

“It’s good for the public,” Bratton says, “and it’s good for the cops.”

Tarnished image

The video showing the shooting of Scott has been ubiquitous in the US this week, a reminder that unless there is incontrovertible evidence showing otherwise, the official version of any police shooting is just that, a version.

Slager’s wife is eight months pregnant. His mother went on national television Thursday to say her son isn’t a racist. He may or may not be. But we know he’s a killer.

Kevin Cullen is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Twitter: @GlobeCullen

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