South Carolina Police Officer Charged With Murder of Unarmed Man

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A white North Charleston, S.C. police officer was charged on Tuesday with the murder of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, following a traffic stop over the weekend.

Officer Michael Slager said he shot Scott after a scuffle during which Scott took Slager's Taser. However, a bystander's cell phone video of the incident showed the officer shooting Scott in the back while he ran away.

'Bad Decision'

North Charleston Mayor Keith Sumney addressed the shooting with media on Tuesday:

"I can tell you that as the result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder. When you're wrong, you're wrong. 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."

How that decision was characterized changed drastically between Slager's initial reports of the incident and after the video surfaced. Slager alleged that he fired in self defense after Scott fought with him and took the officer's Taser. The North Charleston Police Department said the same on the morning of the shooting.

But video taken by a bystander painted a different picture. It showed that Slager may have already fired his Taser, as an object falls to the ground behind both men when Scott turns to run away from the scuffle. Officer Slager then draws his gun and fires eight shots, hitting Scott, who was approximately 15 to 20 feet away, in the back. Legally, police officers are only allowed to use deadly force against a fleeing suspect if there is probable cause that the suspect "poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."

Big Charges

The arrest and murder charge come on the heels of many similar incidents, most famously the Michael Brown shooting near St. Louis in August 2014. That incident sparked nationwide protests, a scathing report from the Department of Justice on race and policing in Ferguson, and focused the nation's attention on police tactics and the tension between police and the African-American community.

Like so many instances of police shootings, no criminal charges were filed in the Michael Brown case, making the fact that Officer Slager was charged with murder particularly noteworthy. This is probably due to the biggest difference between the two cases: the video. Whereas there were only eyewitnesses to Brown's shooting (and eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable), video evidence of Scott's shooting appears very damning. (North Charleston's mayor has indicated more video of the incident exists.)

Video is no guarantee of a conviction, as the Rodney King case proved, but the official response to the shooting also differs from that in the wake of Brown's death. Whereas the Ferguson Police Department and mayor largely defended Officer Darren Wilson, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said he was sickened by the video of Scott's killing and that Slager has already been fired.

Finally, while Wilson's case was left to a grand jury to decide whether charges should be filed, the decision to charge Slager with murder has already been made by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. The national climate is also different than it was eight months ago. Protests have already begun in Charleston following Scott's killing, and the FBI and DOJ are also investigating the shooting.

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