Viewpoint

The death penalty for a busted tail light

A placard is tied to a fence where Walter Scott was killed by a police officer.
A placard is tied to a fence where Walter Scott was killed by a police officer. GETTY

You thought, perhaps, that we were making this stuff up? That the whole “Black Lives Matter” thing was probably overblown? That the idea of African-American men having to fear routine encounters with the police was being exaggerated by self-serving activists?

Let’s go to the videotape.

In North Charleston, South Carolina, last Saturday, a bystander happened to be watching – and taking video with his cellphone – as police officer Michael Slager killed a man named Walter Scott in cold blood.

The images are stomach-turning. The 50-year-old Scott, apparently unarmed, is running away. Slager draws his weapon and aims at Scott’s back, firing again and again.

“Shots fired,” Slager reported to the police dispatcher, according to authorities. “Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.”

In the cellphone video, Slager makes no attempt to revive the dying man. Instead, he goes back to the place where the encounter began, picks up an object and returns to drop it next to Scott’s body. The object, difficult to identify in the video, is believed to be Slager’s police Taser.

The most basic forensic examination would have shown that Scott was some distance from Slager when he was shot. Investigators from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division likely would have been skeptical of any claim that the officer feared for his life.

But what could anyone prove? In the end, detectives would have had the word of a police officer against that of a corpse.

Thanks to Feidin Santana’s video justice has a chance. By midweek, Slager had been arrested and charged with murder.

Santana has said in interviews that initially there was a struggle between Slager and Scott, but Slager quickly “had control” of Scott. Scott “never grabbed the Taser of the police. He never got the Taser,” Santana told NBC’s Matt Lauer.

What started the whole thing? Slager pulled Scott over because he had a broken taillight on his aging Mercedes.

Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the street. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. For three black men, misdemeanors became capital offenses.

We don’t know what happened before Santana arrived, but I have to assume that Scott might have given him lip or otherwise expressed his displeasure. And given subsequent events I have to doubt that Slager initiated the encounter with an Officer Friendly approach.

Why wouldn’t Scott just cooperate? I doubt we’ll ever know. He reportedly owed back child support, and there was speculation that he wanted to avoid being jailed for that.

The fact is that not everyone who is ever stopped by a police officer is going to be happy about the experience. Yet black men run a tragically greater risk than others of having the encounter turn deadly.

Walter Scott’s broken taillight was an excuse, not an offense. Slager knew that Scott had to be guilty of something. It was just a matter of finding out what that black man’s crime might be.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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