Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University’s School of Law and author of “Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Dorothy Brown: Shooting by cop might have followed usual narrative of blaming black suspects
But video in Walter Scott's fatal shooting showed the truth, Brown says
With hindsight from Michael Brown case, North Charleston did the right thing with arrest
A white police officer claims he feared for his life and is justified in killing an unarmed black man. A police chief supports the police officer, who is ultimately exonerated, and a predominantly black community seethes with rage because it knows that an injustice was done.
We’ve seen this movie before. Spoiler Alert: Cop gets away with it.
Routine stops for walking in the middle of the street or driving with a broken taillight – these should not result in anyone’s death. But time and again it ends with a black man dead in the street and the community has no recourse.
This time the stage was set in North Charleston, South Carolina, a city of about 100,000 people. Walter Scott was stopped by Officer Michael Slager for a broken taillight, and within minutes Scott was dead. According to the incident report, Slager said: “Shots fired, and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” His attorney at the time, David Aylor, said that Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon.”
But then came the video.
We watched in horror as we saw Slager shoot Scott in the back multiple times. Then we saw Slager pick up something from one location and place it near Scott’s lifeless body. On Tuesday, the officer was arrested on murder charges. North Charleston police Chief Eddie Driggers told reporters, “I have watched the video, and I was sickened by what I saw.” Apparently so was Slager’s attorney, who announced after the video was made public that he was no longer representing the officer.
After the video became public, the officials in North Charleston deftly handled the situation. However, it was an easy case. There is no plausible evidence that Slager feared for his life when Scott is seen running away.
In Ferguson, the video we have in the death of Michael Brown is of press conferences with police Chief Tom Jackson, who refused to release the police officer’s name, but did release a video that appeared to show Michael Brown stealing cigars. We have the video of the military weapons deployed by the police in Ferguson that were trained on its residents and the press. The world seethed.
North Charleston’s police force is about 80% white, with a population of 47% black and 37% white in the city. Ferguson’s police force is 94% white (only three of the 53 police officers are black), and the city is 67% black and 29% white.
Both North Charleston and Ferguson have police forces that are not representative of the population they serve, yet because of a video North Charleston’s police force got in front of the story. I’m not sure North Charleston gets here without learning something from the mistakes of Ferguson.
I have heard many commentators say the North Charleston shooting doesn’t have anything to do with race. I don’t buy it. I wonder how many whites in North Charleston with broken taillights get pulled over? Being pulled over for driving while black is a well-known phenomenon, which I discuss in my “Critical Race Theory” casebook. Racial profiling by Slager could have been the catalyst for Scott being pulled over in the first place.
Yes, the North Charleston officials behaved differently than the officials in Ferguson. I don’t think it’s because race had nothing to do with it. It is that perhaps the North Charleston officials are better than those in Ferguson when it comes to racially charged situations – especially given the instructive fallout from Brown’s shooting. And, of course, the video.
It remains to be seen whether Slager will be convicted of murder. Strange things can happen in a jury room. Recall how the Rodney King videotape allowed a Simi Valley, California, jury to acquit the Los Angeles police officers, but a federal jury later convicted the officers of violating King’s civil rights. What a video proves can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder.