The killing of 50 year-old Walter Scott by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, caught on video by a heroic citizen named Feidin Santana, has become the deservedly hot topic this week, evoking near universal (but not quite unanimous) horror at the brutality and impunity of the killing. There have also been qualified expressions of joy at the fact that the officer who shot Scott eight times as he fled was charged at all, thanks almost entirely to the fact that the incident was caught on video. This is no small thing, given the filmed killings of people like John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice that went unpunished.
But there is also despair at the unknowable number of police killings, past and future, that followed this same blueprint in the absence of video evidence. What Santana captured with his cellphone camera wasn’t just the killing of one black man, it was an instructional video on how to kill a thousand black men and get away with it. Maybe a thousand and one, maybe more.
Step one is shooting a black person for whatever reason. White people have a hard time believing that cops are just on the hunt, looking to kill black people, and will bend over backwards to believe that this is not the case. It’s a false premise designed to protect police impunity, because none of these cases involved anything of the sort. Slager may or may not be a bad cop, but all he had to be to kill Walter Scott was a normal cop reacting to instincts that have been drilled into him by a dominant white culture that views black men as a de facto threat, and fueled by a police culture that relentlessly promotes the kind of “real talk” on race and crime that got Scott pulled over in the first place. It’s the same instinct that overtook Cpl. Sean Groubert when he opened fire on Levar Jones during a routine traffic stop, when Jones was precisely obeying Groubert’s commands:
Step two is to get your story straight, and do it early. One of the easiest clues to the pervasiveness of police brutality is the second-nature way they construct justification while they are conducting it by shouting “Stop resisting!” or by, in Slager’s case, telling his dispatcher that Scott took his taser. As Slager demonstrates, it doesn’t even have to be a good story, because everyone is already prepared to believe it as long as you have a story.
Step three is the optional task of fixing the evidence to fit your story, a new wrinkle in the Scott case that was absent in many of the other recent high-profile incidents. In this case, the video actually shows Slager planting a weapon on his victim, which could be the icing on uncountable numbers of police shootings that weren’t caught on video:
But it is the fourth step that Slager’s killing of Walter Scott exposes in ways that other incidents have not, and which most clearly demonstrates the urgent action needed to protect citizens from police who make deadly mistakes that they are never punished for. When Slager plants that weapon next to Walter scott’s dead or dying body, he does it in full view of another police officer. In fact, he drops that taser right in front of a black police officer, who presumably doesn’t favor the killing of unarmed black men with impunity.
That officer doesn’t appear to have reported the planting of that evidence, since Slager wasn’t arrested until after the video came out, but even if he did, it is the casual certainty with which Slager committed that naked act that is the problem. Among police officers, there is a notion that any time a police officer is put in a jackpot over use of force, the natural result will be some other cop hesitating when he shouldn’t and getting killed, or allowing others to be killed. That premise extends across white popular culture, and into juries like the one that cleared Eric Garner’s killers, and throughout law enforcement agencies and prosecutors that investigate these crimes.
It’s true that these steps could be (and probably have been) used to kill white people, too, but logic and data tell us that they generally aren’t. At a basic level, black men are overwhelmingly more likely to be in contact with police, which is, itself, a self-fulfilling cycle that reinforces the threat that police feel from black citizens. If cops were more afraid of white people, they’d be killing more of them.
Unfortunately, changing cultural attitudes about black men is slow work, and the next Walter Scott doesn’t have time. If rationality won’t stop cops like Officer Slager from panicking and killing when they don’t need to, then perhaps the knowledge that a bad story and a drop piece won’t save them could have that effect. As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest pointed out Wednesday, body cameras are a good place to start, but they’re not enough. Yes, Slager was arrested and charged, but I wouldn’t bet the farm that he’ll ever see the inside of a jail cell. I’d almost bet money that Sean Groubert won’t. If you are capable of being amazed at what a jury will believe, then you haven’t been paying attention.
What we need, in addition to body cameras, is a federal investigative body to handle all police use of force investigations, because we cannot continue to believe that incidents like these are the result of isolated trouble spots. Even if that were true, black citizens shouldn’t have their lives depend on some geographic wheel of misfortune, any more than their right to vote should be. The FBI is investigating the Slager shooting, but they’re not exactly inclined to skepticism of law enforcement shootings. Police use of force investigations need to be federalized, and they need to be conducted independently from all other law enforcement agencies and activities. Only then can citizens begin to feel safe, and begin to root out the deeper causes of this violence.