It is 2:30 a.m., and you are awakened by the sound of screaming followed by gunshots. You immediately go to your window and grab your phone on the way. From your window, you see only darkness and hear nothing. You call 911 and report what you heard. Within a few minutes, your doorbell rings and you open your front door to a 28-year-old man who has been
dispatched to your home. The street is quiet, and it is very dark outside. You tell the officer where you think the gunshots came from but as you are doing so, you both hear a scream coming from down the block. The officer’s two-way radio comes on and you hear “Armed robbery in progress. Shots fired” at an address just a few doors away. Without waiting for back-up, he gets in his car, activates his lights and siren, turns on his spotlight and drives three houses down to the address.
As he approaches the address, he sees two men running from the residence. With no regard for his own safety, he rushes up the stairs and enters the dark house just as a third man escapes out the back door. The officer is scared but enters and clears each room that he can until back-up arrives. He finds only the homeowner and her family holed up in one of the bedrooms, terrified. Some of the occupants have suffered gunshot wounds and are taken to the hospital. Eventually all three assailants are captured and arrested.
It is this type of bravery that society has come to expect from our law enforcement officers. Countless times we hear of those who risk their lives just doing their jobs each day, and we expect them to use all the knowledge, expertise and resources at their disposal to keep us safe, capture criminals, and uphold and enforce the law. It is because of recognition of the difficult job they do that most people admire and respect the police. However, sometimes police behave shamefully or perform their jobs in an unreasonable manner. Some use force when none is necessary, and that includes deadly force. Police are rarely prosecuted for killing, even when it is apparent that the force used was not reasonable. According to the Washington Post, there were 990 fatal police shootings in 2015 but only 10 officers were charged with a crime. Even when prosecuted, officers are nearly always acquitted. That is because we as a society tend to give the police the benefit of the doubt, even if they kill, if we believe that that occurred in the course and scope of their duties. It is only when an officer steps outside his role as an officer and uses the power of his badge to commit a crime that a jury will punish him.
Even where an officer’s taking of a life is clearly unreasonable and unnecessary, his cries of fear seem to resonate with juries. So much so that police now justify every shooting by professing a fear for their lives where they believe that, if they had not fired first or at all, they themselves would be dead right now. Although such claims seem unbelievable, juries have consistently given police the benefit of the doubt due to the dangers of their job and because the police protect us from a lawless society. When an officer faces a jury and says, “I was scared. I made a split-second decision, and I did what I was trained to do: shoot until the threat is eliminated,” he is almost assured an acquittal. We've written before about the mindset and prioritization of officer safety that contributes to this fear.
But an officer’s claims of fear should not be used to justify a murder. There must be a limit. An officer cannot be allowed to escape responsibility for all his actions by simply proclaiming “I feared for my life.” Such a claim at least must be plausible or it makes a mockery out of the criminal justice system and will ultimately erode our trust in law enforcement.
On Tuesday, April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott, a 50-year-old African American man, runs from police two minutes after being pulled over for a broken brake light. Now-former local veteran police officer, 35-year-old Michael Slager, pursues Scott on foot. Slager fires his sidearm eight times. Five shots hit Scott as he runs away, the last striking him in the buttocks as he falls. Slager then walks nearly 30 feet to where Scott lies face down on the ground, screaming “Shots fired!” into his microphone. When Slager arrives at the fallen Scott, he yells at Scott to put his hands behind his back. Slager then puts handcuffs on Scott. No effort is made to render first aid to Scott or otherwise save his life. Instead, Slager walks back to where he began firing on Scott, retrieves his taser from where it fell, and then walks over to where Scott lays and drops the taser beside his body.
The official story Slager conveys to his superiors is that Scott had wrested away Slager’s taser and was coming at him armed with it, and this situation caused Slager to fear for his life, so he shot Scott. Based on the deference we give police officers, this should be the end of the story, right? Officer Slager was threatened, he feared for his life, and he shot Scott to save his own life—case closed.
On April 9, 2015, a cell phone video taken by Feidin Santana is published by New York Times and contradicts Officer Slager’s account. Slager is quickly fired and soon charged with murder. South Carolina does not have degrees of murder; a killing is either murder or manslaughter.
Many believe that Scott’s life was taken because Black Lives Don’t Matter and that police are quick to claim fear and shoot even on stops for minor traffic infractions. We've addressed this theory for why officers shoot and kill so many Black men in one of our old articles. According to USA Today, in 2013 and 2014, nearly every deadly pursuit arising out of a stop for an illegally tinted window, a seat-belt violation or the smell of marijuana involved a black driver.
On October 31, 2016, former officer Michael Slager went on trial for his killing of Walter Scott. Despite the video showing that Slager fired eight times on Scott as Scott ran away from him and that Slager’s taser had fallen on the ground behind the officer, Slager testified using the same script that has consistently resulted in the acquittal of police—fear, fear, and more fear:
“I was scared” and in “total fear that Mr. Scott didn’t stop” resisting arrest. “At that point I pulled my firearm and pulled the trigger.” “I fired until the threat was stopped as I was trained to do.” “I had to make a split-second decision.”
This is what Slager, a white male, told a jury comprised of 11 whites and 1 black. During jury selection, the defense struck 9 jurors, including 7 minorities. The jury pool began with 75 people, including 16 blacks.
There may be plausible reasons to shoot someone in the back multiple times while they run away, but fear is not one of them.
If Scott’s killing can be justified simply by an officer’s proclaiming, “I shot because I feared for my safety, and it was him or me,” then every killing by police, even those of children or infants, can always be justified simply by claiming fear.
But their own fear cannot and must not become an impenetrable shield that instantly and wholly absolves police for the consequences of their actions every time they take a life.
If Michael Slager is not convicted of at least manslaughter for his killing of Walter Scott, an entire segment of our society will lose all trust both in our police and in our system of criminal justice.