Walter L. Scott, 50, is dead. North Charleston, S.C., Police Officer Michael T. Slager, 33, has been charged with his murder.
This flat out looks bad, on every level. At least what we know does, and much remains to be seen. But virtually everything on this video seems to indicate the officer at the very least over-reacted and at the absolute worst committed murder and then tried to cover it up—all while wearing a police uniform.
We at Calibre Press weigh in quickly on these issues because we believe police officers have a duty to be advocates for our profession and perspectives. Consequently, we’ve been accused of always backing the police. I’ve taken exception to that critique. In my articles I constantly talk about waiting for facts and understanding the totality of the circumstances before jumping to conclusions, making incendiary statements, storming businesses and burning buildings.
Facts and their totality are absolutely essential when investigating crimes, regardless of who allegedly committed them. But this looks very bad.
What we know is that Scott was stopped for an equipment violation. For some reason he ran, was tased, and was shot while running away unarmed. In addition, it appears as though Slager walks back to pick up his Taser and then drops it next to Scott as he laid on the ground dying. This is important because according to police reports, Officer Slager said over the radio immediately after the shooting: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.”
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Mayor Keith Summey said during a press conference announcing the murder charges. “And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
Mayor Summey is right. A legal decision has been made and the process will move forward. And if a jury finds proof beyond a reasonable doubt, then Officer Slager will be found guilty, sentenced and punished.
But that’s all in the future. What about now?
We need, collectively as a country, to maintain decorum. Let’s learn from the many mistakes we have made over the past six months, since the Ferguson, Mo., incident. Let’s not overreact. Let’s not find things that don’t exist. Let’s not incite the masses based on false narratives. Let’s not indict a profession of 800,000.
So I’ll start as the owner of Calibre Press. It doesn’t look good, admittedly. I’ve stated as much as we can as of this moment. Officers make mistakes. Some commit crimes. Officer Slager has been charged with one. The system is working. No cover-ups. No turning a blind eye to reality.
Following are my hopes for how this will be handled by various professions and actors involved for the good of all.
LAW ENFORCEMENT & TRAINING ISSUES
Body cams would tell much, not all, of what really happened. A civilian video of the incident may have made all the difference when it comes to the eventual outcome concerning charging the officer. Outside of that—the argument goes—we would only have the officer’s word. The dropping of the Taser near the body at least raises questions.
Training issues jump to the forefront of this incident. Was this an overreaction by the officer to a stressful encounter? Was there a misunderstanding and/or a mismanagement of the force continuum? Do we train for what is truly important? Do we invest in our trainers and training programs? Or is it mostly lip service and something to get through so boxes can be checked indicating training occurred to cover legal liabilities?
Community and media relations: It seems as though this South Carolina city has learned. While I continue to believe that there is no single correct way to handle incidents such as this one, at least we can learn from the past. Our relationships with the communities we serve need to be understood and nurtured. This is an unfortunate opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless.
Race relations must be addressed honestly and contextually. Does this city have racial problems? If it does, this must be addressed justly and immediately. If it doesn’t, don’t overreact. Law enforcement needs to be proactive on these issues. Relationships take time, trust and commitment.
Don’t overreact and/or incite for the sake of ratings. Let’s see if this time credit is given to those who deserve it, such as the department, city and prosecution officials.
Maintain ethical behavior. Examine and verify before indicting the officer, the city, the department and the profession as a whole.
Don’t jump to the conclusion that this incident was motivated by race. Pay attention to why you use headlines that immediately point out color when the cop is white and the suspect/victim is black (and never the other way around).
Race relations. Address it honestly and contextually. Does this city have a problem with race relations? If it doesn’t, don’t make one up. If it does: Investigate and then report.
ACTIVISTS & PROTESTORS
Don’t overreact. Express yourselves according to your first amendment rights. But breaking windows, burning buildings, etc. take away from the message.
Don’t globalize the problem because of one incident. The vast majority of officers work hard and prove that they don’t want to hurt people and are not racist. If you want changes made to the system, impugning good people doesn’t help your cause in the long run.
Police officers are good people who prove beyond a reasonable doubt every minute of every day that they want to help people and society as a whole. We have faults, and our systems, our bureaucracies, certainly have their failings. So let’s all take a breath, move forward together and then we may actually take a step toward justice.