13. April 2015 13:25
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Avoidable by Josh Cannon

13. April 2015 13:25 by Administrator | 0 Comments

Another day, another tragically familiar police shooting dominates the news. The difference this time is the news only broke at the surfacing of a bystander’s cell phone video, video which clearly shows, contrary to the official account and initial news reports, North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager fatally shooting a fleeing, unarmed Walter Scott in the back.

Another thing that makes this case different than others, including some where video was also available (Tamir Rice; Eric Garner; et al.), it has sparked quick action and outrage across partisan lines. The North Charleston Police Department has promptly fired Officer Slager, and authorities have charged him with murder. Politicians, left and right, have expressed shock and disgust after seeing the video.

This could be a positive development toward holding law enforcement accountable for unnecessary force. Or it could just be temporary damage control of what will still only be officially treated as an isolated incident. But what should be just as troubling to all of us as the video footage is this: without that video, we would likely not even be talking about Walter Scott. Slager’s story would not be intensely scrutinized or doubted, and the case would just be chalked up as yet another presumably unavoidable incident with a well-worn script: an unfortunate but justified case of an officer exercising self-preservation.

The key element of video evidence discrediting the official story from law enforcement raises questions beyond this case, of course. Namely, how many other similar, un-filmed cases have there been that will never be exposed to the same clarity, scrutiny, or outrage? The State newspaper reports that South Carolina police alone have been involved in over 200 shooting incidents over the last 5 years. Only 3 officers involved in these incidents have faced any charges related to improper use of force, and 0 have been convicted, despite several controversial cases.

In one such case, police pursued, shot, and killed a 25 year old black male, Aaron Jacobs, claiming he fit the description of a wanted carjacker, and that he had a gun. Autopsy results reportedly showed Jacobs was shot multiple times in the back of the head and in the back. Not only were none of the officers charged, but authorities resisted release of the autopsy and won a favorable ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court that autopsies are not a matter of public record.

The key takeaway here is this: we need to come to a place in our society where we don’t need a video or perfect evidence to question such common and often suspect use of force. Currently, our laws grant incredibly wide latitude for what is considered “justified” lethal force by law enforcement. But as Professor Seth Stoughton writes, we “ […] shouldn’t ask if a shooting is justified, but if it’s avoidable.” 

The issue is not merely a clear case of a police officer shooting a man in the back as he runs away. The larger issue is, all too often, similar incidents which could end non-lethally end in death, precisely because we have allowed for practically any conceivable interpretation of a threat to an officer’s safety to justify killing. Unless we begin to prioritize the preservation of life on both sides of these scenarios - unless we begin to demand that non-lethal options be prioritized in every case - and lethal options, when used, be sufficiently shown to be clearly unavoidable, what happened to Walter Scott will happen again and again to others in a similar position.

We can and must do better, but we can’t expect to do much better if we have to wait for such rare video clarity to have any hope of receiving justice.



Josh Cannon holds a history degree from UAB.  He will be starting with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) April 15, 2015 as a new Justice Fellow.  He also blogs at http://joshuacannon.wordpress.com.