Questions are again being asked about policing in the United States
after a white officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, was charged
with murder following the shooting and killing of a black man following a
routine traffic stop at the weekend.
Officer Michael Slager
The decision to charge the officer, Michael Thomas Slager, came after
graphic video footage emerged showing Slager firing a volley of bullets
into the back of Walter Scott, who was running away.
rarely face criminal charges after shooting people, a fact that has
played into nationwide protests in the past year over how the police use
Yet this case took a swift and unusual turn after
the video, shot by a bystander, provided authorities with a decisive
narrative that differed from Slager’s account.
“It wasn’t just based on the officers’ word anymore,” said
Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Scott’s family. “People were believing this
He said the video forced authorities to act quickly and decisively, and he called the person who made the video a hero.
“What happened today doesn’t happen all the time,” Stewart said. “What if there was no video?”
Scott’s mother stood nearby, saying, “Thank you, Lord” and “Hallelujah.”
also pointed to the video yesterday as a turning point in the case.
They apologised to Scott’s family for the shooting.
wrong, you’re wrong,” North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said. “If you
make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield … you have
to live with that decision.”
Slager, 33, was fired by the city
police department and arrested by the South Carolina Law Enforcement
Division, the state agency investigating the shooting. He was booked
into the Charleston County jail.
He faces a maximum penalty of death or life in prison.
“It’s been a tragic day for many,” Eddie Driggers, the North Charleston police chief, said.
US Justice Department said yesterday the FBI would investigate the
shooting, with the department’s civil rights division and the South
Carolina US Attorney’s Office.
The shooting occurred on Sunday
(about 9.30am Saturday local time), after Slager stopped a vehicle with a
broken tail light. Scott, 50, fled and Slager began chasing him, firing
at the suspect with his Taser, according to the police report of the
incident as well as city officials.
Footage of the shooting,
first obtained by the New York Times and the local Post and Courier
newspaper, shows Scott fleeing across a tree-lined patch of grass. From
several metres away, Slager then fires a series of shots at Scott, who
appears to be unarmed. Scott crumples to the ground.
and the subject is down, he took my Taser,” Slager told the dispatcher,
according to a portion of the police report filled out by another
officer on the scene, relaying what he heard.
Police later said
that Scott was hit with the Taser at least once, because part of it was
attached to him when other officers arrived.
The video also shows
Slager picking up an item and placing it near the fallen Scott, though
it is unclear whether it is the Taser. Even if Scott did have control of
the Taser, officials said, the video shows that he was too far away to
use it against Slager.
“I can tell you that as a result of that
video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with
murder,” Summey said.
The North Charleston shooting comes after
incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City last year that drew
heavy scrutiny to confrontations with police that end with black men
dead. Unrest over those types of incidents continued into this year,
with a shooting in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking lengthy protests.
Charleston is the third-largest city in South Carolina, and it has a
different demographic breakdown from the rest of the state. While
two-thirds of South Carolina residents are white, North Charleston has
more black residents (47 per cent) than white residents (41 per cent),
according to census figures.
The city’s police force does not
reflect that breakdown, however. Last year, four out of five North
Charleston officers were white, according to the Post and Courier.
The police department announced in February that it would equip the force with 115 body cameras.
officials stressed that the episode was not indicative of the entire
police force of 342 remaining officers, calling it a singular “bad
decision” by one officer.
Scott’s family praised the decision to
charge Slager, saying they were “grateful” to the person who came
forward with the video, a lawyer said. The source of the video, a man
who appeared to be passing by when the incident suddenly unfolded before
him, has not been identified.
Stewart, the lawyer for Scott’s family, said the family were “sad” about the shooting.
“There is nothing that can bring their son and brother back,” he said, “but they are relieved that charges were filed.”
He spoke from Scott’s mother’s home, where relatives – including Scott’s four children and three brothers – had gathered.
meanwhile, was initially represented by David Aylor, a local lawyer,
who said soon after the shooting, “I believe once the community hears
all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of
the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”
shortly before Slager’s arrest was announced, Aylor told the Washington
Post that he was no longer representing the officer.
“I don’t have any involvement in that case moving forward,” he said.
was the 11th time an officer has shot someone in South Carolina this
year, according to Thom Berry, a spokesman for the state Law Enforcement
City officials and civil rights activists in South Carolina urged calm in the wake of the shooting and the release of the video.