Why South Carolina Officials Swiftly Condemned Walter Scott’s Shooting

The video of the event is the only reason authorities are holding police accountable.
A South Carolina pastor holds a sign at a rally protesting police brutality on Wednesday, April 8. (Photo: Randall Hill/Reuters)
Apr 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

With five words, the mayor of one city in the South spoke more boldly about police brutality than any other local official in recent memory when it comes to the national scourge of black men’s violent deaths in the hands of law enforcement. “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Mayor Keith Summey told reporters Tuesday in North Charleston, South Carolina, where police officer Michael Slager was caught on tape firing eight shots at Walter Scott as he fled on foot following a traffic stop. The 50-year-old died Tuesday, leading to murder charges against Slager. “And if you make a bad decision, I don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision,” Summey added.

His reaction is in contrast with that of James Knowles, the mayor of Ferguson, Missouri, who was quick to defend the city’s police department last summer during the wave of protests that followed the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. “I can’t second-guess these officers,” Knowles told MSNBC. “They are the professionals.”

Summey’s swift response and the speedy arrest and subsequent firing of Slager are the direct result of what sets the South Carolina case apart from the myriad other incidents in which black men have been killed by police: the clear and shocking video of the incident made by bystander Feidin Santana, which is at direct odds with Slager’s claim that he had feared for his life. The cell phone video leaves little room to argue with what happened or Slager’s role in Scott’s death.

“The only reason the officer is being charged with murder and that the police department is taking it seriously is because a responsible member of the community was courageous enough to record the incident and get it into the hands of the media,” said Julia Sherwin, a civil rights attorney and advocate with the National Police Accountability Project, a legal advocacy group. “If there were not a video, the mostly likely outcome is that the police department would circle the wagons around their offices and say [Slager] had to shoot Walter Scott.”

The video made it nearly impossible for the police department or mayor to respond defensively, and it is likely to generate more support for the growing movement that challenges the use of deadly force by police against people of color, particularly in the wake of events in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a white police officer’s choke hold after selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York.

“I think the lasting impact of this is likely to be that it will enhance the credibility and standing of people who don’t trust the accounts of police,” said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who studies community policing.

Kennedy echoed Sherwin, pointing out that the events in the South Carolina shooting are “extremely unusual” in their clarity and documentation. Regardless, he said authorities all over the country are fine-tuning how they respond to violent incidents that merit national attention.

“There is absolutely no question that savvy police departments and district attorneys have been learning a lot from what are pretty clear mistakes that have been made in some of these incidents,” Kennedy told TakePart.

Such mistakes include selectively releasing or withholding information about victims and officers involved in shootings, the way the Ferguson Police Department did in Michael Brown’s case. There’s more of a push to provide the public with information on often-secret internal investigations. The response to events in South Carolina demonstrate “a movement toward transparency,” Kennedy said.

In February, the Police Executive Research Forum hosted police chiefs from all over the country to discuss leadership post-Ferguson. The conversation reflected a growing awareness of how thoughtful and deliberate departments must be in their handling of violent incidents between officers and the community, and the need to better train officers to ensure that deadly force is only a last resort.

“I think Ferguson has changed policing forever,” Chief Jerry Dyer of Fresno, California, told conference participants. “Quite frankly, I think we all are going to live with some of the things that occurred there for many years.”

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said he immediately fired seven officers after the department obtained a video of them beating a robbery suspect and called for a special investigation in anticipation of the community’s response.

“It was a calculated risk, but there is no way that I could stand up there in good faith and say what I saw on that videotape wasn’t a possible violation of department policy and the law, because I believed that it was,” McClelland said. “And the community supported me. And my city didn’t burn; we didn’t use tear gas.”