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
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.