Who pays for a bullet in the back?

April 10, 2015
Still image from video allegedly shows police officer shooting man in the back in North Charleston

North Charleston police officer Michael Slager (R) is seen allegedly shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott in the back as he runs away, in this still image from video in North Charleston, South Carolina taken April 4, 2015. REUTERS/HANDOUT via Reuters

Just in case we as a nation thought we understood what’s at the heart of our police-brutality debate, the slaughter of Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man running from a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, expands our understanding of what it really means.

The shooting also makes us question whether holding entire police forces accountable for the action of one officer will help end this pattern of dehumanization.

For most of the cell phone video that documented Scott’s death, Scott and Officer Michael Slager are separated by a tree in the foreground; Scott almost appears to be alone, a man running in the park on Saturday morning.

But just as surely comes Officer Slager from the other side of the screen, calm in a shooter’s stance, firing one, two, then eight rounds past and into Scott’s back. The cool inhumanity continues for minutes, with Scott lying face down in the dirt, his hands manacled behind his back. The officer appears to rush to retrieve something off the ground, possibly his Taser, from across some distance, then returns to drop it beside the corpse.

The whole terrible scene is a sickness familiar to Americans within the last year, this time ignited by a “tussle” at a traffic stop for a broken tail light.

Yet while elements of the same chilling narrative persist — an apparently unarmed black man, an overwhelmingly white police force — Scott’s murder includes elements that shatter what has become the prevailing wisdom about police brutality.

First, Scott was not an unarmed teenager. Like Floyd Dent, the 57-year-old black man beaten after a traffic stop outside Detroit, Scott was middle-aged. His family and friends loved his outgoing personality. He was a father who had been jailed before for failure to pay child support. The thug stereotype has no resonance here. Brutality is not just about cops and young men.

Second, rather than present a threat, Scott fled. Police are never justified killing suspects in order to prevent their escape. Brutality is often about unquestionable circumstances.

Third, Officer Slager had time to follow the law. Whatever happened before Scott ran from the encounter, the officer was not in distress when he fired his weapon. He was not faced with a split-second decision, a common defense in these types of incidents. Nor did this appear to be a high-crime, high-stress environment. Officer Slager seemed oblivious to the civilian filming him with a cell phone. Brutality is not just about the tough jobs police do.

Fourth, some cops lie. In the video, Officer Slager appears to protect himself by falsifying evidence. He lies to the dispatcher. Brutality involves corrupt conduct.

So rather than dissect what facts we have in order to exonerate the officer, we’re left with the stark reality that police brutality represents a common threat to all black people: The police do not always see them as fully human. They misperceive their authority as a license to demand total surrender, on pain of horrific violence. Whatever training they have had, a common blindness prevents too many of them from using it properly in encounters with black people.

Firing at a fleeing person who presents no threat is a clear violation of the (weak) constitutional standard for police use of deadly force. If Officer Slager did plant a weapon near his victim, his actions would suggest he knows this well enough. That he may be tried for murder is no small advance in a case that, without the video, probably would not be a case at all.

Justice is one form of accountability, based on the rare threat of imprisonment. Civil lawsuits are another, but financial settlements come from a municipality’s taxpayers, not the police themselves.

A third form might be to financially penalize entire police forces for the misconduct of a few officers. Police departments must begin to feel the sting of misconduct — through their budgets. The federal government, for instance, provides about a billion dollars a year in aid to local police departments. Some of it comes in the form of carrots — such as increasing earmarks for certain programs — and some as sticks — the discretionary denials of funding for certain enhancements.

It’s not just about taking their tanks away, the process since Ferguson of reducing the militarization of police equipment and weaponry. It’s about giving police management financial reasons to manage better — and for rank-and-file cops to have a stake in their colleagues’ conduct. Maybe collective penalties will promote collective responsibility. A government that incentivizes humane and responsible police forces will have them.




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Stating “The police don’t always see them as fully human.” That’s a ball face lie of stupidity that distorts the respect that people hold for a police officer. Read the charts friend. Where does 80% of the crime come from. That’s where an officer has a little problem holding a higher respect.

Posted by T.L. | Report as abusive

Here’s a tip. If you visit America, and you get pulled over by the police. Don’t run. Because if they don’t shoot you, then word will get around and everyone will try to run from the police. It’s also better if you don’t commit crimes that necessitate running from the police on a traffic stop. Good luck.

Posted by Matthew73 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately we have certain people in our society who don’t care about civil liberties and believe that apparently every ‘inappropriate’ action should be a ‘death sentence’ carried out by police officers.

Fortunately at least in the eyes of the law, this is not the case, and murdering people who are not imminent dangers to the rest of society is NOT acceptable and this ‘officer’ will be doing hard time soon, as is befitting of someone who violates the public trust.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

This will be the litmus test for whether the law works as intended.

In the US you are innocent until proven guilty.

In this case I just don’t see how there can be ANY reasonable doubt that the cop is guilty.

Ferguson you have multiple witnesses saying he had his hands up and multiple witnesses that said he didn’t. Multiple people say he charged, etc etc. Not enough clear evidence sorry.

Eric Garner died of a medical condition caused by the altercation. There was no choke there.. he could speak so how can he not take a breath? Tragic but would there be as much of a public outcry if he died of a heart attack after the arrest?

This one.. no… this cop will go to jail or the system is indeed broken. Scott could have shot the cop and eaten his finger before he fled and there is still no justification for shooting him in the back at a range of 25ft+ while he was running away.

Posted by serendip7 | Report as abusive

Recall that the official police line on this (from the report) was that the officer was acting in self defense. Had he not been caught on video murdering a guy for a broken tail light, and and planting evidence on him…. the official story would likely prevail.

Never believe police official stories. This is not some isolated incident. This just happened to be a recorded incident.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It’s terribly inaccurate to judge the actions of the entire police department on one video. Especially when that officer was arrested by his fellows for murder.

Posted by BioStudies | Report as abusive

“It’s terribly inaccurate to judge the actions of the entire police department on one video.”

I’ll keep that in mind, next time there is a single cop hero…. and they ALL think they’re heroes. There are a few good apples in the bunch, but for the most part cops are under-educated, petty slobs like the general population.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Why don’t they ever shoot bankers, real criminals?

Posted by Blurt | Report as abusive

“Maybe collective penalties will promote collective responsibility.” Oh, what a brilliant suggestion! Apparently, anger has so blinded you, Mr. Troutt, that you dare to propose a favorite totalitarian solution? The despots of the world, living and dead, would certainly agree with you, but this is America. There is no such thing as “collective responsibility”. It is solely a function of each individuals actions. I, for one, refuse to live in a “collective society” where I am rewarded or punished based upon what you do, sir, and I would hope you would not want to have your fate based upon my behavior either. Using race, or anything else for such a liberty destroying purpose is unconscionable.

Posted by beofaction | Report as abusive

Most police departments are controlled by their unions with the Police Commissions on short leashes. Just about every job goes to the well connected and not best qualified. It’s no wonder there’s problems. They’re a bunch of misfits that use their union power to control and intimidate the politicians.

This job is less dangerous than a truck driver, sanitation worker or delivery person. When you consider the “Overtime Gravy Train” and retirement in their late 30’s on a “trumped up” full disability pension, people will do anything to get one of these jobs.

Posted by Handbook | Report as abusive

Traffic police should not be carrying firearms, in any mature societies law enforcement differentiates between crime, traffic violations, and people who don’t pay child support. We in the US have a police force that has to train and handle all types of violations. When this police officer found out that this man has a warrant for his arrest he should have towed his car, eventually this man will turn up, there is no need to chase him, he is not a criminal. Putting him in jail or shooting him in the back is not going to help him pay any past or future child support, in fact the kid(s) are now left without ANY hope of payments. Congratulations!

Posted by KarimNNAss | Report as abusive

This cop will have fun in prison.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Film the police. Everywhere you see them. It is your right to keep an eye on the government thugs. You have a right to video-record the police in their normal line of duty.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Someone is pushing for chaos in US by poor training the police force and the ghetto on the loose for long period of time. All the videos were pushed through the media instead of censorship that was demonstrated when the beheading videos were released by IS. Rule out chaos…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Macedonian, Chaos is a given here. This is the only developed nation in the world to have imported slaves to its homeland, murdered the indigenous population through systematic war….. then introduced 350 million guns into the population to see what happens.

Chaos? Duh.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

For too long our nation’s police forces have operated under an unwritten assumption that there is some “license to kill” in almost any situation, and “self defense” or “threat of imminent danger” will always work when writing up a report. The chance of being surreptitiously videoed introduces an entirely new–and dramatic–element into the traditional context of police chasing down “suspects.” The police culture has not had a chance to adapt to this disturbing new ripple that challenges their mindsets and modus operandi. We’re at a breakthrough point in criminal justice procedures. Let’s hope police cultures can change in the direction of greater awareness and accountability. An idealistic hope, I realize, but my hope nonetheless.

John Patrick Grace
Huntington, West Virginia

Posted by publishersplace | Report as abusive

No witness has offered any reason to charge the dead American victim with anything more than eluding an officer – and he never had a chance to be convicted of that potential charge. How and when did eluding an officer without provocation become an offense that arbitrarily elicits a deadly police response?

Posted by auger | Report as abusive

they are not OFFICERS first of all, this title comes with respect, education, rank and dignity ….US police thugs are just guvmnt henchmen hiding behind gun, cowards and degenerates, thats all

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

“That he may be tried for murder is no small advance in a case that, without the video, probably would not be a case at all.”

The man was shot 8 times in the back. The autopsy would have shown that he was not shot at point blank, meaning he was shot from a distance while running, or at the very least standing with his back turned. The officer would have gone to court regardless.

Posted by AFin | Report as abusive

300 million people judged by the actions of 6 or 8 people a year. THAT is the TRUE TRAGEDY.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

There are a few good apples among the police, but try not to judge the majority of them by the actions of a few good apples. Most police are ignorant beer belly thugs, just like you think they are. Doughnut chompers.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@beofaction We link our well being to others all of the time. How do you live in such isolation? Do you work with no one whose actions could change your life? I think you may have taken Mr. Troutt’s suggestion to the nth. It seems to me we are just talking about departmental financial incentives; not charging the entire force with murder.

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive

The cop was a murderer. And he was armed when found. The police should have shot HIM. Certainly makes more sense than a lengthy trial. The guy with the broken tail light did not get a trial.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“So rather than dissect what facts we have in order to exonerate the officer, we’re left with the stark reality that police brutality represents a common threat to all black people: The police do not always see them as fully human. They misperceive their authority as a license to demand total surrender, on pain of horrific violence.”
If the situation is truly this bad, if this indeed is a sober and accurate assessment of the present status of the forces of order and the pervasive attitude of all policemen with few exceptions, then the situation is truly hopeless. No amount of punishment will produce justice.

Posted by bollard | Report as abusive