From: San Francisco Chronicle
By Rachel Swan 4/8/15
It wasn’t the first time a killing by a police officer was caught on video. But the stark and instantly viral footage of a white South Carolina officer gunning down an unarmed black man as he ran away may have a profound impact on the growing debate over holding police responsible for abuses.
In the Bay Area and across the country, the video of the death of Walter Scott, 50, on Saturday morning prompted powerful reactions.
To police watchdogs it was an I-told-you-so moment that laid bare what they see as the cold reality of many shootings — particularly of black men — while law enforcement advocates saw a highly unusual occurrence. They worry that the case, and the spread of the video, will deeply damage the credibility of other officers who must explain their own uses of force.
While police killings such as that of Michael Brown in Missouri launched a national Black Lives Matter movement and put pressure on the White House to form a task force on modern policing, the video from South Carolina represents a new extreme. It shows Officer Michael Slager firing eight times, four shots hitting Scott in the back.
Moments later, Slager drops an object, possibly a Taser, next to Scott’s body. The officer reported that Scott had gotten hold of his Taser.
“This is huge,” said LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge who five years ago was appointed to serve as independent police auditor for the city of San Jose.
Cordell, who is black, said the footage of Scott’s death provides an element that was missing from the aftermath of Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo. The young African American man was killed by a white officer, who was cleared of charges. “If there hadn’t been the video,” Cordell said of the South Carolina case, “this would have been just another officer shooting.”
To Cordell and others, the case shows how cell phones and social media have changed the nature of policing, shining a bright light on misconduct that some groups have long complained about. Relying on the video, South Carolina officials filed murder charges against Slager Tuesday, setting the stage for a closely watched case in North Charleston, a rural, largely African American city with a majority white police force.
Police chief ‘sickened’
On Wednesday, Slager was fired, while the mayor of North Charleston said every officer would be equipped in the future with a body camera. The town’s police chief said he was “sickened” by what happened.
To Bay Area criminal defense attorney Harry Stern, who has represented police officers in more than 300 use-of-force incidents, the shooting was shocking, but also represents an aberration.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Stern.
“My job is to look at incidents like this from a defense perspective,” Stern added. But, he said, “there’s no way this could ever be considered self-defense.”
Stern and others worry that the shooting will further erode citizens’ trust in law enforcement, at a time when technology is allowing ordinary people to record officers’ behavior and share it widely. He believes that in most cases officers use force “prudently,” even when the results are deadly.
Shocking the system
But police reformists like Berkeley civil rights attorney James Chanin believe it sometimes takes an especially shocking case to grease the wheels of justice.
“It’s not like this started yesterday,” he said. “If there’s an acquittal here, we need to keep the moral outrage going.”
A conviction for murder would be nearly unprecedented. A Chronicle review of past cases in which U.S. police officers have been charged with murder for line-of-duty killings in the past 20 years turned up a dozen cases involving a total of 20 officers.
None of the officers was convicted of murder, and most were acquitted. Three officers have pending cases.
The Bay Area has a history of community outrage over police shootings, most famously with the riots that followed the video-recorded killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African American man who was shot by a white BART police officer in Oakland in 2009. When the issue picked up steam in other parts of the country last year, the Bay Area remained a stage for a national dialogue on police misconduct.
For Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, who now runs a community foundation in her son’s name, incidents like the one in North Charleston reopen old wounds.
“I was just stunned again,” Johnson said. Despite her shock, she said the video underscores the quotidian nature of police violence.
Before the video surfaced, Slager had said he fired when Scott reached for his Taser. That was the official version of events until Scott’s family released the footage shot by a bystander.
Johnson’s brother, Cephus Johnson, who became a vocal opponent of “police terrorism” after his nephew’s death, said the South Carolina footage corroborates things he’s known for a long time. “It helps show that what we’ve been saying all this time is true,” he said.
People on all sides of the issue agree that the presence of cameras — and the new level of scrutiny they provide — continues to emerge as a game-changer in how police use force.
Hoping for change
George Holland, the president of the Oakland chapter of the NAACP, said the video of the killing was “shocking and inexcusable,” but hopes it will inspire changes within police agencies around the Bay Area and the country.
“You are going to have to start revisiting some of these incidents,” he said. “Thank goodness there was a camera. You go back to Rodney King. Thank God they had a camera.”
In many deadly force cases, Holland said, “police generally get the benefit of the doubt.”
Officer cameras urged
Michael Rains, an attorney who defends officers accused of misconduct, says he advises police officers to always behave as though their actions are being recorded. He’s become a proponent of officer-worn cameras because they provide a layer of accountability — and often substantiate the officer’s side of the story.
Rains cautions, though, that cameras can supply footage that’s “graphic and ugly,” which might provoke civil unrest, even if it’s legally defensible.
“There’s more vocal protests than ever before to police use of force,” Rains said. “I worry about the game-changer being mob rule.”
But Rains saw something different in the Walter Scott shooting.
“It appears to me that we have a circumstance where an officer manufactured a reason for the shooting after the fact,” Rains said. “If that’s the case, then it’s terrible, and it hurts good law-enforcement officers throughout the country.”