A white police officer from North Charleston, South Carolina, was charged with murder Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting a black man in the back as he tried to flee. Walter Scott, 50, was killed on Saturday after Officer Michael Slager, 33, stopped him for a broken taillight at 9:30 a.m. Scott fled and Officer Slager pursued him through a grassy lot. Slager tried to use his Taser to subdue him, but according to the Post and Courier, Slager said through his attorney that Scott wrestled it away from him. The officer claimed he then shot Scott because he “felt threatened.” Slager said on his radio, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.”
However, a bystander video released Tuesday does not match that version of events. As Scott breaks away from Slager and turns to run, Taser wires are seen extending from the officer’s hands to Scott’s body. Slager then fires eight shots at Scott, who’s apparently unarmed, hitting him “multiple times in the back,” according to an affidavit. Scott is face-down on the ground when Slager handcuffs him. As another officer arrives on the scene, Slager picks something up from the spot where the scuffle occurred, then drops an object next to Scott’s body.
Police reports say officers gave Scott CPR and first aid, but that’s not shown in video taken several minutes after the shooting. Two officers tend to Scott using a medical kit, but he remains face-down. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
North Charleston mayor Keith Summey said the bystander gave the video to Scott’s family, who turned it in to South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division. An anonymous source provided the footage to the the Post and Courier and the New York Times.
After authorities reviewed the video, Slager was fired and arrested on Tuesday evening. He may face the death penalty or life in prison. In addition to the state inquiry, the FBI and the Justice Department are investigating possible civil-rights violations.
Slager has been on the force for more than five years. He has never been disciplined, though two people filed complaints against him, including one who said the officer shot him with a Taser for no reason. Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, has two stepchildren and his wife is pregnant. Attorney David Aylor, who was representing the officer earlier in the week, said after his arrest, “Today, I withdrew my representation of Michael Slager. This is a terrible tragedy that has impacted our community.”
Scott was a Navy veteran and father of four. He had been arrested ten times, mostly for failing to pay child support, and according to the Times, his family believes that was why he was fleeing. “He has four children; he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record,” said Chris Stewart, the family’s lawyer. “He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”
City officials moved quickly after the video surfaced, apparently hoping to avoid the unrest that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, after Officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. At a press conference, Mayor Summey thanked the bystander who came forward with the video, and said Officer Slager made a “bad decision.” “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Summey said. “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.”
North Charleston’s police department was accused of racial discrimination several years ago. A July 2012 Post and Courier report explains that after North Charleston was named one of the most dangerous cities in the nation in 2008, “city officials enacted a policy of aggressive patrolling — incessant stops of motorists for minor violations, seemingly random interviews with residents, a virtual police occupation of neighborhoods in the days just after violence occurs.” The strategy led to a major reduction in the number of homicides, but also a spike in complaints about police misconduct and claims that police were mainly targeting residents who were black and poor.
On Tuesday Ed Bryant, president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, said the relationship between community leaders and police commanders has improved in the past two years, “But nothing has changed at the bottom level.” Last fall the paper reported that while 45 percent of North Charleston residents are black, only 18 percent of the police force is black. A protest outside North Charleston’s city hall is planned for Wednesday morning.
At a press conference, the victim’s brother, Anthony Scott, said the family feels that with the murder charge “justice has been served,” but he questioned what would have happened if the bystander hadn’t come forward. “We’ve all seen the video,” Anthony Scott said. “If there hadn’t been a video, would we know the truth, or would we have just gone with what was reported earlier? But we do know the truth now.”
This post has been updated throughout.