On Tuesday, South Carolina police officer Michael Thomas Slager was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting death of Walter Scott. Charges against South Carolina police officers for shooting someone are extremely rare. But what was particularly remarkable in this case was, for at least two days, Slager was apparently unaware that video of the entire incident existed.
This provides a unique opportunity to observe how one police officer sought to avoid accountability for his actions.
Between the time when he shot and killed Scott early Saturday morning and when charges were filed, Slager — using the both the police department and his attorney — was able to provide his “version” of the events. He appeared well on his way to avoiding charges and pinning the blame on Scott.
Then a video, shot by an anonymous bystander, revealed exactly what happened.
On Saturday the police released a statement alleging that Scott had attempted to gain control of a Taser from Slager and that he was shot in a struggle over the weapon. The Post And Courier reported the initial story:
Police in a matter of hours declared the occurrence at the corner of Remount and Craig roads a traffic stop gone wrong, alleging the dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.
A statement released by North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said a man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him.
That did not work, police said, and an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.
The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.
The story clearly came from Slager but he was able to use the authoritative voice of the police department to bolster his narrative. Meanwhile, Scott could only be defended by friends who did not witness the incident. “Walter was a nice, good, honest person… He was a grown man working hard to take care of his family,” said Samuel Scott, the victim’s cousin.
By Sunday, the police department had clammed up and refused to release any additional information about the events. (It’s unclear when the department became aware of the existence of the video.)
On Monday, Slager sought to reinforce his narrative, this time releasing a statement through his attorney. From The Post And Courier:
Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force, lawyer David Aylor said in a statement.
“When confronted, Officer Slager reached for his Taser — as trained by the department — and then a struggle ensued,” Aylor said. “The driver tried to overpower Officer Slager in an effort to take his Taser.”
Seconds later, the report added, he radioed that the suspect wrested control of the device. Even with the Taser’s prongs deployed, the device can still be used as a stun gun to temporarily incapacitate someone.
Slager “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon,” his attorney added.
If the video had not surfaced, that’s where the story might have ended. In nearly all cases where an officer fires a weapon, that is the end of the story. A study by The State found “[p]olice in South Carolina have fired their weapons at 209 suspects in the past five years” but none were convicted. “We ruled all the shootings were justified – and we looked at dozens and dozens of them,” one former prosecutor told The State.
In this case, the video revealed a very different scenario. Scott, who was unarmed and fleeing, was shot in the back by Slager from a distance of at least 15 feet. After Scott was fatally shot, the video appears to capture Slager planting an object next to Scott.