A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him fatally shooting an apparently unarmed black man in the back while he ran away.
The officer, Michael Slager, 33, had said he feared for his life because the man took his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man – Walter Scott, 50 – fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Mayor Keith Summey said of the shooting during the news conference. “And if you make a bad decision – don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street – you have to live by that decision.”
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The shooting unfolded after Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. Scott ran away, and Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. The officer fired his Taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Scott, according to police reports.
Moments after the struggle, Slager reported on his radio, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” according to police reports.
But the video, which was taken by a bystander, presents a different account. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Scott turns to run.
Something – it is not clear whether it is the stun gun – is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men and Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.
The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Scott’s body, the video shows.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the state’s criminal investigative body, has begun an inquiry into the shooting. The FBI and the Justice Department, which has opened a string of civil rights investigations into police departments under Holder, are also investigating.
The shooting comes on the heels of high-profile incidents of police officers using lethal force in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere around the country. The deaths have sparked a national debate over whether police are too quick to use force, particularly in cases involving black men.
In Charlotte, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Officer Randall Kerrick goes on trial July 20 in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick is charged with manslaughter.
The unarmed Ferrell was shot 10 times at close range during a September 2013 confrontation with Kerrick and two other Charlotte-Mecklenburg officers. Ferrell was black. Kerrick is white.
Police and prosecutors have denied The Charlotte Observer’s public records request for dashboard camera footage that shows Ferrell’s encounter with police.
A White House task force has recommended a host of changes to the nation’s police policies, and President Barack Obama dispatched Attorney General Eric Holder to cities around the country to try to improve police relations with minority neighborhoods.
North Charleston is the state’s third-largest city with a population of about 100,000. Blacks make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The city police department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.
The Supreme Court has held that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that he “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
Slager served in the Coast Guard before joining the force five years ago, his lawyer said. Because police departments are not required to release data on how often officers use force, it was not immediately clear how often police shootings occur in North Charleston, a working-class community adjacent to the tourist destination of Charleston.
The police chief of North Charleston did not return repeated calls.
Scott had been arrested about 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support or show up for court hearings, according to the (Charleston) Post and Courier. He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge, and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon, the newspaper reported. Scott’s brother, Anthony, said he believed Scott fled from police Saturday because he owed child support.
“He has four children, he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record. He had a job, he was engaged,” said Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Scott’s family. “He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”
Stewart said the coroner told him that Scott was struck five times – three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear – with at least one bullet entering his heart. It is not clear whether Scott died immediately. (The coroner’s office declined to make the report available to The Times.)
Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer later arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but also not seen performing CPR.
The debate over police use of force has been propelled in part by videos like the one in South Carolina. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque charged two police officers with murder for shooting a homeless man in a confrontation that was captured by an officer’s body camera. Federal prosecutors are investigating the death of Eric Garner, who died last year on Staten Island after a police officer put him in a chokehold – an incident that a bystander captured on video. A video taken in Cleveland shows police shooting a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who was carrying a fake gun in a park. A White House policing panel recommended that police departments put more video cameras on their officers.
Scott’s brother said that his mother called him Saturday, telling him that his brother had been shot by a Taser after a traffic stop.
“‘You may need to go over there and see what’s going on,’” Anthony Scott said his mother told him. When he arrived at the scene of the shooting, officers told him that his brother was dead, but he said they had no explanation for why. “This just doesn’t sound right,” he said in an interview. “How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?”
Anthony Scott said he last saw his brother three weeks ago at a family oyster roast.
“We hadn’t hung out like that in such a long time,” Anthony Scott said. “He kept on saying over and over again how great it was.”
At the roast, Walter Scott got to do two of the things he enjoyed most: tell jokes and dance. When one of Walter Scott’s favorite songs was played, he got excited.
“He jumped up and said ‘That’s my song,’ and he danced like never before,” Anthony said.
Charlotte Observer staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed. For the Times, Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting from North Charleston, S.C. Kitty Bennett and Sarah Cohen contributed research.