On April 4, 2015 an unarmed black man was shot and killed by a white police officer. The officer, Michael Slager, pulled over 50-year-old Walter Scott for a non-functioning tail light. The police car’s dashboard camera would show Mr. Scott running from the officer, all that could be seen from the initial footage.
The police officer’s narrative was a familiar one: He felt his life was in danger, thereby giving him the right to use deadly force after Mr. Scott allegedly reached for his taser. The narrative of imminent fear that police officers frequently use often results in acquittals, or no charges at all. Without any witnesses to the incident and a dead victim, Mr. Slager’s version of events was initially widely assumed to be true. There were no planned protests or public outcries — until, that is, a video fully contradicting Mr. Slager’s story reached the media.
The video showed the officer shooting Mr. Scott 8 times in the back, then handcuffing his hands while he lay dying on the ground. The most damning part of the video shows the officer’s attempt to plant the taser to support his initial story.
Prior to the video’s release, the officer’s supervisors and colleagues praised his work and fully supported his version of the story. After the nation watched the video in horror, Michael Slager became the face of police corruption. African-Americans across the country view this as one incident among many, where police officers abuse their power, often ending with the use of deadly force.
The notion of fear when facing black bodies is often used by those in uniform. Because officers tend to walk away without charges after brutally beating or murdering black men, Americans were initially shocked that Mr. Slager would face charges. Indeed, when this video came to light, I personally doubted the officer would be charged, because in police killings of unarmed black men, it is standard to accept the police version of events, even when their story is abundantly contradicted by the evidence. I saw this first-hand growing up in Chicago. Police misconduct and brutality was to be expected in black and brown communities. Not a single black male is safe. It seems as though America has such a toxic view of black men that even a young person with no criminal record who attended an Ivy League college will be subject to media slander and searching character probes after an encounter with police brutality. This rarely happens to the police, just as it did not happen to Michael Slager prior to the video release, even though he had prior complaints lodged against him for instances of police misconduct.
In a 2014 Pew Research Center/USA Today survey sharp differences emerged in the way blacks and whites view the issue of accountability for police misconduct. The study found:
“Fully 70% of blacks say police departments around the country do a poor job in holding officers accountable for misconduct; an identical percentage says they do a poor job of treating racial and ethnic groups equally. And 57% of African Americans think police departments do a poor job of using the right amount of force. Yet whites’ views of police performance in these areas are hardly positive. For instance, just 37% whites say police forces nationally do an excellent or good job of holding officers accountable for misconduct. And 38% say the same about police departments’ performance in treating racial and ethnic groups equally.”
One thing is clear from these frequent incidents of police misconduct and violence: Until elected officials concentrate their efforts on making police accountable these cases will continue.
• Gianno Caldwell is founder and principal of Caldwell Strategic Consulting. Web: www.caldsconsulting.com