Was the South Carolina Shooting a Reflection of Racism, Police Subculture or Both?
As more evidence emerges—in addition to the cell phone video of a South Carolina policeman, who is white, shooting a black man in the back—it certainly shows that serious abuse of power and a likely homicide occurred. But does it also show a racially motivated interaction?
The officers words were not recorded so motive must be circumstantially inferred from the actions that were captured on the short but dramatic cell phone video, and from what we know occurred before and after what we have all seen on television.
We know from the police reports that Walter Scott was stopped for a busted tail light on a Mercedes, and we also know that in many parts of our country a black man driving a Mercedes with a minor infraction is more likely to be stopped than a white driver.
We know that there was a scuffle between Officer Michael Slager and Scott, and that the officer tased Scott. We know from the video that Scott ran away from the officer and that the officer then fired eight shots, several of which hit Scott. We know from the video that the officer picked up an item, which appears to be the taser, and dropped it near Scott’s body.
It is reasonable to infer from these circumstances that Scott’s race may have played a role in his being stopped for a minor traffic violation—in other words that the broken taillight may have provided an excuse for what really was the racial profiling of a black man driving a fancy car.
It is also possible, though less certain, that the decision to arrest and then tase Scott may have been influenced by his race. But it may also have been influenced by his actions—resisting arrest, seeking to flee. It is certainly possible that Officer Slager would have done the same thing to a white man who acted the way Scott did. We can never know for certain.
So now we come to the shooting, which we have all seen and can judge for ourselves. We don’t know whether words were exchanged before the shooting began, but no unrecorded words could possibly justify what we see on the video: a man with nothing in his hands running away from an arrest with his back to the officer being shot multiple times. The officer may have been angry with Scott, for trying to grab his taser—if that is indeed what Scott did. He may even have been frightened, though the video does not suggest fear on the part of the officer, as he methodically shot Scott in the back as he was running away. It suggests that the officer was trying to prevent Scott from fleeing. If Scott had, in fact, assaulted Officer Slager and had tried to grab his taser, then the officer may have had reasonable grounds for arresting Scott for more serious crimes of violence, such as assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. But that would still not justify shooting Scott in the back to stop him from fleeing such an arrest, since the constitutional criterion for the use of deadly force requires a reasonable fear of imminent serious harm to the officer or the public. The video clearly shows that this standard was not met. But it doesn’t necessarily show that Officer Slager’s unauthorized use of deadly force was motivated by racism. A considerable number of white people have been unlawfully shot by police who were angered by the disrespect and contempt shown them by arrest resisters. This does not, of course, justify any unlawful resort to deadly force, but it does provide a plausible non-racist explanation for Officer Slager’s apparently unlawful response.
Finally, we come to what appears to be the deliberate planting of the taser near Scott’s body to create the false impression that Scott was holding the weapon when he was shot. Tragically, this type of police criminality—it is a felony to tamper with evidence, including moving its location—is far too typical of a small subculture of rogue police officers who commonly plant evidence to cover up their misconduct. Some carry with them “Saturday night specials”—small cheap pistols—that they can plant on victims of improper police shootings. Others carry packets of drugs to plant on those arrested without probable cause.
These bad cops—and they constitute a tiny fraction of all decent police officers—are equal opportunity abusers. They are as likely to plant evidence on or near a white as a black person. They are doing it to protect themselves—to cover up their misconduct. So if Officer Slager did, in fact, plant the taser near Scott’s body, he did it because he realized that he had messed up. He probably would have done the same, had Scott been white. What we don’t know is whether he would have found himself in the situation that necessitated a cover up—whether he would have shot or even stopped Scott in the first place—if Scott had been white.
Within the small subculture of bad cops—those who shoot out of anger, plant evidence and lie to protect each other—there may be some who are also motivated by racial bias. There may be others who have mixed motives. But if the subculture is changed, as it must be, the primary beneficiaries will be black Americans, because black Americans are disproportionately impacted by every aspect of our criminal justice system.