Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Sad Day in North Charleston

North Charleston, South Carolina, is in the national news today as the result of a fatal shooting this past weekend. On Saturday morning North Charleston Police Patrolman 1st Class Thomas Slager, a 33 year-old, five year veteran of the Department who had previously served in the Coast Guard stopped Walter Scott, a 50 year-old Coast Guard veteran, for a malfunctioning tail light in the parking lot of Advance Auto Parts on the corner of Craig Street and Remount Road. Although Mr. Scott had had some previous run-ins with the law his only current issue was an outstanding warrant for delinquent child support -- according to his family he did not want to be arrested, a reasonable sentiment. A struggle purportedly ensued with Mr. Scott charging Officer Slager and the officer reaching for his Taser, announcing that he'd deployed it, and that Mr. Scott had tried to wrest the Taser from him.Shots were fired and Mr. Scott fell; although first aid and CPR were administered prior to the arrival of EMS, he was pronounced dead on the scene.

When I discovered the location of the incident my attention was immediately piqued. In late 2002 I returned to South Carolina after a couple of years living in Texas and first moved to the city of Hanahan -- not at all far from that location. I passed by it daily and have shopped in that Auto Zone store. Remount Road is known as a fairly high crime area although when living in Hanahan I rode a bicycle there in the daytime and didn't feel threatened. I have also been stopped in that area -- without incident -- for a burned out headlight.

The story of Officer Slager, who had an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard and a clean record with the North Charleston Police Department except for two complaints, the most serious one of which was dismissed after it was investigated, began to unravel. A video was released (which is graphic) showing Mr. Scott running from Officer Slager and the officer drawing his pistol and shooting Mr. Scott in the back eight times with something -- presumably his Taser -- at own feet. On Tuesday the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which has responsibility for the investigation, announced that Officer Slager would be charged with murder and at the press conference dealing with the situation Mayor Keith Summey and particularly Chief  Eddie Driggers were palpably distressed at the situation. In a later press conference with Mr. Scott's family their pain was, understandably, clear.

Several points:

--Whether or not race was a factor in this incident is not clear. While some have drawn comparisons to incidents in, among other places, Ferguson, Missouri -- a case in which investigations repeatedly cleared the officer -- race as a motivation has yet to be proven.

--While the video is damning and it is hard to imagine preceding actions that would've justified shooting Mr. Scott in that manner, Officer Slager has not been convicted by a jury. It is essential that the case be tried by the proper means -- not in the court of public opinion.

--Assuming that Officer Slager is as guilty as he appears to be, he's violated a sacred trust and dishonored a profession in which the vast majority of officers serve honorably. He should be severely punished and one would hope that the state will aggressively prosecute. 

--Thankfully calm has prevailed. Pray that that will continue.

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