A disturbing S.C. police shooting

The Observer editorial board

This video still shows the men just before the shooting began.
This video still shows the men just before the shooting began. AP

The particulars of the suddenly infamous North Charleston, S.C., police shooting read like the plot of some hyped-up Hollywood crime drama.

A white police officer opens fire on an unarmed black motorist fleeing a traffic stop. Motorist falls, struck by five bullets. Cop walks over with his Taser and drops it near the dying man’s body, then reports on the radio that he fired because the man took the stun gun from him.

While it sounds like an opening scene for a “Law & Order” episode, a bystander’s cellphone video suggests that’s what happened in real life Saturday during a confrontation between North Charleston Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager and motorist Walter L. Scott.

Slager maintained afterward that he’d been justified in using fatal force against the 50-year-old motorist during a scuffle.

But the video, which emerged Tuesday, appears to show an officer acting not in fear for his life, but as unsanctioned judge, jury and executioner. Some of the worst police offenses imaginable – using unwarranted deadly force, manipulating evidence, lying to cover it up – are all on the table here, judging from the video and its immediate aftermath.

It offers a graphic and unsettling reminder that while most officers perform with self-control, fairness and bravery, not all will live up to that standard on every occasion. The integrity of policing, like any profession, rests on the behavior and decisions of fallible, flawed, and perhaps at times even dark-hearted human beings.

That’s why as more and more of us carry our now-ubiquitous smartphones and their onboard cameras everywhere, it’s increasingly common for the few officers behaving badly to find their misdeeds caught on video.

The Scott video ranks among the most disturbing. When the officer glances in the camera’s direction after the gunshots, there’s a fleeting moment when you fear for the person holding the cellphone.

Every citizen should welcome such bystander videos, even though the worst of them, like Scott’s and that of Eric Garner’s choking death, dent public confidence in the police.

Even so, police officials should welcome such videos for the deterrent effect they can have on any rogue officers hiding in their ranks.

It all makes Charlotte City Council’s recent decision to buy 1,400 body cameras for patrol officers look like $7 million well spent. Also wise is Police Chief Rodney Monroe’s outreach to inner-city communities concerned about police use of force.

Walter Scott joins Garner, Jonathan Ferrell, Tamir Rice, and others as symbols of our country’s struggle to defuse the fear-tainted encounters between white police officers and black males.

Slager rightfully stands charged with murder, and could face 30 years to life if convicted. Many would not have believed the allegations against him unless they’d seen the confrontation with their own eyes.

Thanks to a brave bystander with a cellphone, they have.