by Meg Langford
SHOT A MAN IN THE BACK: SLAGER’S SHAME
DRAGNA: You wouldn’t shoot a man in the back, would you?
RIVKA: A man, no. But you’re not a man.
—The Bag Man
ODO: You’d shoot a man in the back?
GARACK: Well, it’s the safest way, isn’t it?
—Deep Space Nine
RABBIT: Only a big, fat rat would shoot a guy in the back.
(Fudd shoots; a cloud of smoke appears where the rabbit stood.)
ELMER FUDD: So I’m a big, fat rat.
(Rabbit appears, shoves a wedge of cheese in Elmer’s mouth.)
RABBIT: So have some cheese, rat!
—Bugs Bunny cartoon
No. I am not including a Bugs Bunny quotation to trivialize the shooting of Walter Scott by cop Michael Slager. Quite the opposite. I include it to make the point that not shooting a guy in the back is one of the human rules instilled in us since childhood. In a wicked world determined to make war with itself, the rule about not shooting a guy in the back is inculcated from the earliest days of kids watching Westerns. I have had children as neighbors my entire life; I’ve babysat for about ten thousand of them, and never once, when watching little boys play at war, cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, have I ever once seen one kid shoot another kid in the back. John Wayne made over 250 movies, and often bragged that his character never once shot anyone in the back. It has something to do with fairness. And it has everything to do with honor. Officer Michael Slager has no honor. Then again, what would we expect from someone who would plant evidence at a crime scene? Then again, what would we expect from someone who would deny a dying man CPR?
This is the brief story of the shooting of Walter Scott, an African American, by the white police officer Michael Slager. The incident occurred on April 4th, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina. It was a beautiful spring day.
If this chapter seems short, or somehow incomplete, that is because the most important part of the chapter has yet to be written. Those who care—about law, about justice, about the way black men are treated by police officers, about humanity in general—are all wondering what will happen to the cop who shot a fleeing man in the back five times and left him to die in the dirt—after planting something (presumably that now infamous Taser) on the ground by the dead man’s feet.
For those who read this as history (in case we are already starting to forget), here is what happened. It is worth noting that two pieces of crucial video footage tell us about the beginning of the incident, and the end of the incident. What happened in between is a matter of some confusion. We know that Walter Scott was pulled over for a broken tail light. We know that he told the officer he didn’t have all the appropriate papers on him at the time, as he didn’t own the car yet and was planning to purchase it the following Monday. We know that after the officer returned to his cruiser to run the license check, Walter Scott made the foolish mistake of bolting from his vehicle. Officer Slager got out of his car and gave chase. We do not know for certain what happened immediately after that. But we do know that Walter Scott began to flee again, and then was shot in the back five times by Officer Slager. Slager fired eight times, three bullets missing Scott. We also know that in talking with a senior officer a few moments later about the shooting, Slager actually laughed as he commented about how his adrenalin was pumping. (Oh, excuse me. Is this the part where I get to point out that since the shooting took place in a public park, and since three of Slager’s bullets missed Walter Scott and went God knows where, Officer Scott could have just as easily wounded—or killed—up to three innocent bystanders, possibly children, with his stray bullets.)
Slager still lived in the arrogant world of an earlier time, before police officers lived with the reality that their actions could be recorded for all the world to see. Clearly Slager never imagined that a terrified passerby had captured the entire incident on his cell phone. Had the cocky Slager stopped to imagine the possibility that he was being recorded, he surely never would have picked up the Taser from the ground, walked it over to a dying Walter Scott, and planted it near his feet. Then again, had he known his actions were being recorded, one doubts he ever would have shot his weapon over and over again at a fleeing man.
OFFICER MICHAEL SLAGER: WHAT WE KNOW
At the time of the shooting, Slager had only been with the North Charleston Police Department for five years. And yet, like so many other officers in this book, he had managed to rack up a
number of complaints, charges, and lawsuits in a relatively short period of time. I take citizen complaints and litigation with a grain of salt, just like any other savvy news junkie. But when the incidents stack up, it is hard to deny the impact of numbers. And as for credibility: there was a time when I would have believed an officer of the law over a private citizen with some kind of a checkered record. Increasingly, that is difficult for me to do. And I know I am not alone. After all, in so many of these cases, we have found the cops to be lying, so where is their credibility?
Here is what we know about Slager: twice prior to shooting a man in the back, he has been involved in excessive force cases. Include the shooting of Walter Scott, and that is three excessive force charges in five years. Add to that the time he refused to come to the aid of a citizen, and the two reprimands he received from a superior officer, and that is six black marks against Slager in five years. Excuse me—why is he still working? Well, actually, he isn’t anymore. He is sitting in jail. The more precise question would be, why was he allowed full powers and permission to carry a gun after the first several incidents? If the North Charleston Police Force had taken the problem of Michael Slager more seriously, Walter Scott might be alive today.
Let’s take a look at those incidents—in order of increasing severity.
Incidents one and two involved a supervisor on the force having to talk with Slager about his behavior while on duty. Frustratingly few details are provided, but according to departmental reports, on two separate occasions, a supervisor “spoke with Slager in reference to certain procedures in reference to conducting motor vehicle stops and citizen contacts.”
Incident three involved a mother who turned to the police to help her, because her children were being constantly harassed by certain individuals in the neighborhood, and she was afraid for their safety. Officer Slager answered the call, and decided to take no action. The mother was an African American woman.
Incident four was yet another traffic stop. And yes, the driver was an African American. According to the law firm of Loevy and Loevy, who are handling the excessive case force for the victim (the incident is caught on videotape): “During what should have been considered a routine traffic stop, Julius Wilson, of North Charleston, South Carolina, was forcibly pulled out of his car and restrained on his stomach by the officer that pulled him over and those that then responded to the scene. After being forced to the ground, Mr. Wilson placed his hands above his head, palms facing down. Two officers then started to place him in handcuffs. At that point, although Wilson was compliant and about to be handcuffed, the third officer stood and fired his Taser gun at Wilson’s back. …the officer who used a Taser against Wilson was Michael Slager, the same North Charleston Police Officer who fatally shot Walter Scott in the back as he ran following a traffic stop.”
The fifth incident was perhaps the most alarming event, prior to the Scott shooting. As you read,
imagine what would have happened if Officer Slager had been removed from service, forced to undergo major retraining, or otherwise penalized—would he have thought twice about shooting Walter Scott?
It was September of 2014 when a man named Mario Givens was awakened by a pounding on his door in the early hours before dawn. Givens was naturally alarmed; he looked out and saw Patrolman Slager standing on his porch. Slager was at the house looking for Givens’s brother, Matthew. It turns out that Matthew’s ex-girlfriend, Maleah Kiara Brown, had sworn out a complaint against him. Maleah Brown and her friend went to the Givens home with the police, and they both watched in horror as the officers’ attack on Givens unfolded.
Givens opened the door as the officers stood on the front porch, and Maleah Brown immediately yelled to the officers that the person who answered the door was not the suspect. "He looked nothing like the description I gave the officers," Brown told Associated Press. She noted that she had provided the two officers with a very detailed description of her ex-boyfriend, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, while Givens is 6 feet, 3 inches in height.
Givens then asked the officer why he was at the house, and Maleah Brown said Givens asked very nicely, and was very polite to the officers. Slager told Givens to step outside. Givens then asked “Why do you want me to step outside?” Slager then barged inside and grabbed him, yelling, "Come outside or I'll Tase you!" Givens told the Associated Press, "I didn't want that to happen to me, so I raised my arms over my head, and when I did, he Tased me in my stomach anyway."
Givens said the pain from the stun gun was so intense that he dropped to the floor and began calling for his mother, who also was in the home. At that point, he said another police officer came into the house and they dragged him outside and threw him to the ground. He was handcuffed and put in a squad car. Givens was not resisting when he was Tased, Maleah Brown told AP. She said she kept yelling to the cops that they had the wrong man, but they wouldn't listen, and used the stun gun on him again. "He was cocky," she said of Officer Slager. "It looked like he wanted to hurt him. There was no need to Tase him. No reason. He was no threat - and we told him he had the wrong man."
The internal investigation the police department opened after Givens filed the complaint exonerated Slager, but Givens and Brown both dispute the conduct of the probe. Givens told AP he was never contacted during the investigation, and only learned the case had been closed after he went to the police station six weeks later to ask what happened. Brown said that her statement in the final complaint included none of the details she had given police about Slager shocking Givens while he was on the ground and clearly not resisting arrest. There was no mention in the final report of the fact that she kept repeating that Givens didn’t fit the description, and that she kept telling officers through the Tasing that Givens was the wrong man. She also said she was not contacted during the investigation. Though initially accused of resisting the officers, Givens was later released without charge.
So there you have it. The low down on Michael Slager. Six incidents in five years, four involving Afro-Americans, and two persons whose race the police will not disclose. And three of the four Afro-Americans were victims of excessive force. Is Michael Slager a racist?
What happened after the horrific shooting does offer some small glimmer of hope that there can be justice in cases of excessive force—oh, let’s say it. Cops killing blacks.
Initially, Slager’s supervisors and the local authorities were sympathetic to Slager’s story of why he had to kill this man. Then, the world rocked on its axis a little when the bombshell came out: a citizen had recorded the entire killing on his cellphone. A young man name Feidin Santana, walking to work as he did every day, heard the commotion and started to record. Many, many people wonder what would have happened of all this if Santana had not had the courage to record the police murdering a man.
The authorities in North Charleston, in a refreshing change from the usual narrative in these chapters, were quick to state that Michael Slager, fired from the force, would be held accountable. Stated Mayor Keith Summey "As a result of that video and bad decisions made by our officer, he will be charged with murder … When you're wrong, you're wrong …When you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or a citizen on the street, you have to live with that decision."
On June 8th, 2015, a grand jury indicted Slager on a charge of murder after just a few hours of deliberation. Separate investigations are being conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney in South Carolina, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Slager’s lawyer quit on him. A GoFundMe campaign was started to raise money for Slager's defense, but it was quickly shut down by the site. Sometimes, thing go a little bit right, eh? Slager is sitting in jail, denied bond thus fair and awaiting a trial date.
In the meantime, another black family tries to move on without one of its own.
Who was Walter Scott? He loved his four kids, two of them in their twenties at the time of his death. Walter Scott had served in the Coast Guard. He was taking courses in massage therapy because he wanted to help lessen people’s stress. He was newly engaged. And he came from a close knit family. He had previously seen all of his brothers a few months earlier, when they all planned a surprise party for their parents’ anniversary.
Yes, it’s true—Walter Scott was far from perfect. He’d tried several careers, and as a result of his struggles he was behind on his child support payments. In fact, that’s the suspected reason for his fleeing—our justice system locks up fathers who are behind in child support, so they can’t work a job to make it right and pay it back. Now, Walter Scott’s children have zero chance of getting any back child support.
His children did have a chance to express their love at the funeral, though. One of his daughters read a poem: "I had your love from the start... You brought so much joy into my life … I will always be your little girl. But I know I need to grow up and move on. But I will never move on from you." And a Dallas Cowboys flag was placed in the casket with Walter, as his father, brother, and sons remembered watching games together through the friendly family rivalries. The Star and Stripes covered his coffin, as tribute to his status a United States veteran.
Was Walter Scott wrong to have fled from the car? Of course. And that surely would have been reflected in the charges levied against him.
But we do not execute people for being behind on their child support, or fleeing in a panic. Although Michael Slager does. That is exactly what he does. How is he not a murderer?
Use of Tasers is Scrutinized After Walter Scott Shooting”, by Alan Blinder, Manny Fernandez, & Benjamin Mueller. The New York Times. May 31st, 2015.
“Officer Michael Thomas Slager of South Carolina: What we know about him", by Ray Sanchez. CNN. April 8, 2015.
“Walter Scott funeral: Family hopes 50-year-old's death will be 'a catalyst of change' ”,
by Christina Elmore, Cynthia Roldan, Deanna Pan. The Post and Courier. Apr 11 2015.
“The Total Rejection of Michael Slager”, by Adam Chandler. The Atlantic. April 9th 2015.
“A Camera will mean Justice for Walter Scott”, by Charles C.W. Cooke. National Review. April 8th, 2015.
SEE WIKIPEDIA “References” for an extensive listing of article also used.