When Will it End?
Police violence is being met with universal condemnation. Will justice follow?
The killing of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer has been universally condemned by those who have seen the video. But none of us would probably even know the name Walter Scott if not for Feidin Santana. His video shows Walter Scott, having already been tased, run away from officer officer Michael Slager, who, instead of pursuing Scott, pulls out his gun and fires eight shots before Scott falls to the ground. The officer then appears to drop something, presumably a taser, next to Scott’s body. A second officer arrives on the scene but neither appears to offer Mr. Scott any medical assistance.
I am not the type of person that thinks the police should never use force, even on someone who is unarmed. I also don’t think most individual police officers are murderous, corrupt, and racist. I have no doubt that some meet any or all three of those descriptions but I’m wary of making sweeping generalizations about people based on a (relatively) limited set of experiences. I believe that most officers in this country are decent people who want to serve their communities and get home safely to their families every night. That said, whether we’re talking about cities like Ferguson that use the police as a tool for generating revenue or officers who send racist emails and messages or individual officers who make up stories to cover up shooting a man in the back, there are aspects of law enforcement culture that are rotten to the core. Further exacerbating these issues are the facts that we have limited data on police shootings, internal investigations often lack transparency, and even when charges are brought, officers are rarely shootings that occur in the line of duty.
This case, like so many others we have seen over the past year, puts on full display the reasons many black people in this country fear law enforcement. If not for Feidin Santana, Walter Scott’s killing would be filed away next to every other “justified” police shooting. The officers in this case would have undoubtedly stuck to their story that Mr. Scott tried to wrestle Mr. Slager’s taser away from him and that he posed an immediate threat. Their superior officers would have undoubtedly believed them and issued statements to back those claims. The media would have undoubtedly reported their story. And even if a review of the incident was conducted, Mr. Scott would have undoubtedly been denied justice. In fact, this plan was already in motion less than 24 hours after the shooting. The officer’s account, echoed by a police department spokesman, was already appearing in local newspapers.
But Feidin Santana changed that. His video has achieved something that nearly impossible in today’s politically polarized climate: universal condemnation of a police officer’s use of force. I turned to Fox and Friends Wednesday morning to see how they would cover the story and not a single person attempted to shift blame or ask what Mr. Scott did to bring about his own death. In fact, one defense attorney admitted that he knew police officers in the past who carried a “drop gun” in case they needed to plant evidence after a shooting. Considering this was on a network that routinely defended New York City’s stop and frisk policy and is generally pro police, this was a sign of progress.
The police know that their ability to do their job effectively hinges in part on public trust. That trust has been eroded considerably in black and brown communities but incidents like this will even get whites and others who are sympathetic to law enforcement to question their blind allegiance. Local police are one of the only arms of government that some people feel shouldn’t be criticized. Even conservatives who rail against big government twist themselves into knots to defend the police in almost every situation. But as is the case with any institution, arrogance, entitlement, and bad press can weaken the pubic support of even your most ardent defenders.
One of the most important demands of the anti-police brutality and #Blacklivesmatter movements is the call for transparency and accountability when police officers shoot and kill people. This case will go a long way in showing both the imperfections (pre-video cover up) and potential (swift arrest for murder) of our legal system’s ability to handle cop cases. Police have state-sanctioned authority to use deadly force. That is a serious responsibility that should never be used callously. When officers do use it outside of their authority or when they That is what justice looks like. I pray for a day when excessive force cases are seen as a rarity but even before we get to that point, the public, especially minority communities, deserve justice. In fact, a conviction and lengthy jail sentence–or death penalty– in this case could very well be the type of deterrent that proves useful in the future. An officer who knows will lose his job and get the same treatment in a court of law as anyone else might think twice before shooting someone, beating someone, or harassing someone. It might make cops who cover up that type of behavior think twice as well. That’s progress.