Rodney King and Walter Scott became household names a quarter century and 3,000 miles apart, but they were forever linked on Tuesday.
Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating Scott’s civil rights in exchange for having South Carolina murder charges dropped. In December, a jury could not bring itself to convict Slager despite watching him on video shooting an unarmed Scott in the back five times as Scott ran away.
Slager’s plea comes exactly 25 years after the Los Angeles riots that erupted after four police officers were acquitted in Rodney King’s beating. Like Scott’s shooting, King’s beating was caught on video. Like with Slager, despite that clear evidence, the federal government had to step in to provide some semblance of justice after none was to be had at the state level. Slager faces up to life in prison, though he will probably get less.
Twenty-five years after the King case, America sadly still struggles to hold police officers accountable when they cross the line. Those wearing the badge often are treated differently than criminals who perpetrate the same crimes.
For all the talk about the causes of unrest we’ve witnessed in places such as Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte, the truth is they have one thing in common: a community’s belief that police officers are given the freedom to treat members of certain groups of Americans with extreme disdain.
Despite that, in the 25 years between the acquittal of four LAPD officers and Slager’s plea, Congress never mandated the official tracking of police shootings and cases of police brutality, making it exceedingly difficult for the everyday American to properly assess just how broad the problem is or what can be done about it. During that same period, it has remained rare that police officers are either charged criminally or convicted for crossing the line. Slager was the exception, not the rule, and one wonders if he would still be patrolling the streets today if a bystander hadn’t happened to be walking by with his cell phone camera on.
It has given many Americans the sense that a badge doesn’t mean the men and women who wear them are protectors, but that it represents a get-out-of-murder free card. That makes the job of the great majority of police officers who earnestly dedicate themselves every day to protect more difficult and creates distrust with the communities they serve.
Reducing poverty and discrimination and creating more equal opportunities are essential goals. But that won’t reduce the distrust between cop and community that has remained in place the past quarter of a century. To do that, we must more consistently hold corrupt police officers to the standard we hold others.