Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is an interim member of The Charlotte Observer editorial board and the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
Walter Scott and his family got a bit of justice Thursday when a judge decided to sentence former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager to 20 years in a federal prison. That’s a serious consequence for a serious crime, a fact anyone who understands anything about the American prison system knows well.
US District Judge David Norton found Slager guilty of second-degree murder and obstruction of justice. That doesn’t mean this outcome is the start of a new era of accountability for those who police us. It’s actually an illustration of just how far we have to go.
We live in an upside-down world in which the men and women we give the most responsibility, those we train and pay, are given more leeway for bad acts than those we would never give the power and right to detain and kill fellow Americans.
Here are the undisputed facts: Slager shot Scott in the back five times as Scott was running away. The killing was caught on cellphone video by an onlooker.
It was murder. The only real question was whether it was first- or second-degree murder. And yet, a South Carolina jury looked at that video and decided it couldn’t convict Slager. Had federal officials not stepped in, Slager probably would have faced a second state trial with another South Carolina jury who could have also struggled to find him guilty, despite the clearest evidence imaginable.
Why was it so hard for the jury to really see the evidence? Because Slager wore a blue uniform, had a badge and a gun paid for and sanctioned by the state.
Had Slager been a random American man caught on video shooting a fleeing man in the back, the case likely would not have reached a trial. It likely would not have mattered if the two men had been in a tussle beforehand, a claim Slager made but prosecutors disputed.
It likely would not have mattered if the shooter had claimed he was afraid or angry. It very likely would have ended like many criminal cases do, with a plea deal – a confession in exchange for the man being able to avoid a death sentence. And no one would have batted an eye.
Instead, because he was a police officer, Slager received a lesser (if still serious) punishment for his crimes. Federal prosecutors were seeking a life sentence.
While the Scott family got some semblance of justice, the process which led to Slager’s prison sentence sends the message that other families should not expect the same. It took nearly a perfect set of circumstances for Slager to be held accountable. A bystander had to happen upon the scene where Slager was about to murder Scott and pull out his cell phone just in time to capture it on video.
Had that not been the case, there’s strong reason to believe Slager would have never been charged, given that police officers are still rarely charged – let alone convicted – for on-the-job killings, despite all the progress made by Black Lives Matter and other movements for reforms of the criminal justice system. Fellow officers likely would have believed his claim that he shot Scott because he feared for his own life. If they didn’t, a prosecutor likely would have; the South Carolina jury proved that not even airtight evidence is enough to convict an officer.
It should be noted that this decision happened on the same day Democrat Al Franken resigned from the Senate because of allegations he mistreated women, even while declaring that some of the allegations were false. It was a painful moment to witness, a beloved member of the Senate making a sobering speech as he leaves, but Franken’s example shows that those in power can – and must – be held to the highest standard or be stripped of the privilege to lead us.
And his fellow legislators aren’t the only ones who should take note – so should other agents of the state, like police officers. They shouldn’t be given a pass or be allowed to face lesser consequences because they have power; they should face more.