When I was 14 years old, I spent a summer working part-time at the Broward County Police Academy in South Florida. It was far too cool a job for someone my age, especially considering that my duties involved taking part in the live-action training exercises. The instructors would set up a scenario like a hostage situation or an armed robbery, they'd give me a modified gun loaded with blanks (or percussion caps, really) that I'd slip into my waistband, then if the cadets let their guard down or didn't take me as a potential threat my job was to pull the gun and shoot them first chance I got. The idea was to train future police officers to take nothing for granted, but it was obviously a dream-come-true for me. I got paid to "kill" people. It was like a living first-person-shooter, long before games like that actually existed.
One of my strongest memories of those exercises, though, was a particular scenario where an instructor was playing the part of an armed criminal. On TV you always see the cop shout to the bad guy to drop the gun and get down on his knees. At 14, I assumed the way it usually went from there was the guy either put down the gun and did as he was told or the officer had the authority to use force. It doesn't always work that way, though. In this case, the instructor/criminal turned away from the cadet and, when told to comply, simply responded, "No." The cadet had his weapon on him and kept demanding, but the instructor just kept right on refusing to submit. For a good amount of time I stood there in shock until it finally dawned on me: A cop can't just shoot somebody because he or she won't take orders. The instructor had his gun pointed at the ground and his back constantly at the cadet, meaning that he wasn't a direct threat. Legally and procedurally, you can't kill someone for that. Also, police procedure dictates that you never shoot to wound, only to kill -- and you might not want to take a chance with non-lethal force when you're dealing with someone armed. Bottom line: this exercise was the Kobayashi Maru for police cadets.
By now there's a very good chance you've seen the unconscionable killing of an unarmed black man by a white North Charleston, South Carolina cop. Officer Michael T. Slager initially told his superiors that 50-year-old Walter Scott had gone for his Taser during a stop for a broken tail light on Saturday. He said that during a confrontation with Scott, he felt that his life was threatened so he had to shoot and kill him. That was what Slager said happened. That is not at all what actually happened. A video clip of the incident, shot by a bystander the officer apparently didn't realize was there, tells the real story -- and it's a vivid illustration of everything people of color fear about the police in our country. Slager does confront Scott in an empty lot and there's a Taser involved, but from there nothing appears to be as he says. The clip opens with the Taser on the ground and White running away from Slager, unarmed and with his back to him. Slager draws and fires several shots in rapid succession, the first when Scott is easily 30 feet away from him. The shots come one after the other, with Scott still propelling himself forward, until a final shot causes him to collapse to the ground.
In all, Walter Scott was hit eight times from behind.
Slager is then seen calling out to his dispatcher, "Shots fired," as he claims Scott was going for his Taser. He appears to then take the Taser from off the ground near where he was and plant it next to Scott.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Officer Michael Slager executed Walter Scott.
No matter what you believe about Scott -- that he shouldn't have run from the police, that he had an arrest warrant against him for failing to pay child support -- under no circumstances was there a credible reason for the police to shoot him in the back from a distance. It was a violation of police procedure, of Scott's civil and human rights, and of the law. It's the lattermost of these that's led to a well-deserved arrest and charge of murder against Slager. It's frustrating and chilling to think what might have happened had the video upending Slager's story not materialized, but I want to believe -- maybe naively -- that a man shot eight times in the back from a distance would've been difficult for Slager to get away with, even without video proof. Forensics would have quickly determined the truth of what happened, at least in so far as there's never a justification for gunning down a suspect in cold blood from behind. The horrific video sealed Slager's fate and Scott's family, the black community -- which has seen this far too often recently -- and decent people nationwide can be thankful for its existence, but it's still difficult to fathom the idea that Slager thought he'd be able to walk away from this without someone actually catching him in the act.
North Charleston Police Eddie Driggers says about the video clip, "I was sickened by what I saw. And I have not watched it since." But how would he have responded to this shooting if it hadn't suddenly appeared? Regardless, you had a man who was pulled over for nothing more than a busted taillight, who turned out to have a warrant out against him for a non-violent offense and who wound up shot in the back eight times. Taser next to him or not, that's an excessive and unwarranted amount of force. Under no circumstances should Slager have been able to play the self-defense card and get a pass for what he did and the fact that he apparently thought he could may speak volumes about the police culture within North Charleston. Slager's actions should never have been seen as justified -- as a "good shoot" -- even before the video revelation. He should've been questioned up and down and the forensic evidence should've ultimately doomed him.
Why he believed he'd get away with gunning down an unarmed suspect from behind, 30 feet away from him, can only be answered via a thorough investigation of the North Charleston Police Department. Driggers may claim to be sickened by what he saw, but right now he has no choice. The pressure is on him. His department is going to be torn apart, and it deserves to be. Several outlets are already reporting on a "pattern of abuse" within the NCPD, with the New York Times in particular speaking to local residents who claim that a spike in crime in the area in 2003 brought with it a brutal crackdown that put black people in the crosshairs. There have been shootings, indiscriminate stops and assorted harassment, say locals and advocacy groups. If you read closely, it feels like the Justice Department's report on Ferguson all over again, with police specifically targeting people of color simply because they feel like they can and should. It's that kind of culture and latitude to view black people as nothing more than potential law-breakers and actual law-breakers that lead to things like a cop shooting a man in the back and figuring he'll walk on it.
What Officer Michael Slager did was a violation of everything police are supposed to do -- and are supposed to be. Maybe long ago, he learned the right thing to do in the very same kind of training exercises I once participated in, but because he's a bad cop surrounded by a police force that potentially looks the other way at bad cops, he threw all of that training away and designated himself not an upholder of the law but a one man judge, jury and executioner. He's a disgrace to the badge. And there isn't a book big or heavy enough to throw at him.