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North Charleston settles with Walter Scott family for $6.5 million

By Brenda Rindge, The Post and Courier

The family of Walter Scott will get a settlement of $6.5 million from the city of North Charleston, the largest such payout in the recent high-profile killings of black men by police officers.

With members of Scott’s family seated in the audience, City Council unanimously voted Thursday to approve the settlement, which City Attorney Brady Hair called “the largest settlement for this type of case in the state of South Carolina,” adding that he feels it’s in line with settlements on similar cases nationwide.

Scott, 50, a black man, was shot April 4 by white North Charleston police officer Michael Slager. Cellphone video captured by a passerby showed the officer shooting Scott in the back.

Although the killing sparked protests at City Hall, there was no violence as there has been in other cities where similar incidents have occurred, such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. City officials and family members credited the peaceful response of the public and the city’s swift action in arresting Slager with facilitating a settlement.

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“We are very proud that we were able to settle a case of this magnitude without a brick being thrown, without a fire being set and without a lawsuit being filed,” said Hair.

North Charleston officials said they have been talking with Scott family lawyers for several months.

“We agreed ... to try to resolve the case without a lawsuit,” Hair said. “We had lots of open, honest, cordial discussions with them. We didn’t agree on everything but it was a very unique way of handling the situation. We’ve never done it like this before. ... but we felt that if we could come to a resolution without a lawsuit being filed, without depositions and without press coverage of every step both sides made, that it would be healthier for both the family and the city.”

Days after the Scott slaying, lawyers for the family said they planned to file suits against Slager, 33, for civil rights violation and wrongful death, but no suits were filed. During several meetings over the past few months, City Council has gone into closed session to receive advice from Hair on a potential lawsuit.

Slager was indicted on a murder charge in June, and in September Circuit Judge Clifton Newman denied bail, calling the evidence against Slager “persuasive.”

Anthony Scott, Walter Scott’s brother, said Thursday, “Though nothing can replace having Walter in our lives, the city of North Charleston’s historic actions ensure that he did not die in vain. This city sent a message loud and clear that this kind of reckless behavior exhibited by members of law enforcement will not and shall not be tolerated.”

The settlement also protects current or former city employees from being sued in the case.

“The Eric Garner case in New York and the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore really set the tone for the range of numbers that we thought was consistent with what was going on,” said Hair. “We think it is a really fair settlement and a good one. It’s a lot of money but we had to realistically face the fact that the potential for a very large verdict was there because of the video and because we have a police officer who is charged with murder.”

Asked how the parties arrived at a figure, Chris Stewart, a lawyer for the Scott family, said, “You have to be realistic. There is no way that this city could pay $50 million ... You can go to your corner being unrealistic and just fight with the other side, and at the end of the day also harm the city and innocent people that had nothing to do with the situation.”

Mayor Keith Summey said it was important for the city to acknowledge the harm done to Scott and his family.

“(Nothing) negates the fact that (Slager) shot the guy in the back and we’re wrong,” said Summey. “From Day 1, we have said, ‘When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,’ and there was no doubt in our mind that it was going to cost us. Even though I think we handled it completely appropriately, it was still going to cost us.”

The settlement will allow the family and the city to move on, Hair said.

“We think that it is a good resolution and a fair one,” Hair said. “This would have been the thing that we dealt with the next several years and that’s not fair to our citizens, not fair to our Police Department and frankly, not fair to the family.”

“It’s time to move on, bottom line,” said Police Chief Eddie Driggers. “It’s time to move on and do what people pay us to do — to serve and protect. We have 343 sworn officers trying to do what’s right by the citizens they serve.”

Stewart said he could not address how the money will be divided among family members, “but his (four) children will be taken care of.”

In addition, a portion of the settlement money will be donated to the Red Cross to aid flood victims, Anthony Scott said.

Talks are ongoing with the state Insurance Reserve Fund, but as of now, about $1 million of the settlement will come from the Insurance Reserve Fund and the rest will come from the city’s fund balance, which currently is about $18 million. It will not affect the city’s bond rating, Summey said.

“This entire situation has been almost a blueprint of how these situations should be handled,” Stewart said of the settlement. “They came to the table willing to talk, willing to work things out. They didn’t just give away $6.5 million. We had to fight, argue, battle, got at each other for a while, but peaceful resolution is always better.”

Justin Bamberg, a state representative who is also a Scott-family lawyer, said, “From start to this point, to hopefully a criminal conviction of the officer, we have set a prototype, the standard, for how these types of situations can be handled and should be handled, in that when you keep faith, when you respect one another ... things can work out.”

After the video was made public, Scott’s death became the focus of a nationwide discussion on police officers’ use of force against black men. The video showed Scott freeing himself from a struggle and running away as he was shot at eight times.

“The criminal process still has to run its course,” Hair said. “Getting this part of the matter behind everyone will help so that the criminal justice system can focus on that.”

Anthony Scott called the settlement a “bittersweet victory” and said the family will focus on the criminal trial.

“It is our hope that after a jury of his peers reviews the evidence, they’ll send an equally important message to law enforcement that there is no place for unnecessary violence against unarmed, fleeing individuals.”

Slager also is being sued by Julius Garnett Wilson, who has a history of drug arrests and a conviction for interfering with police, for allegedly shooting Wilson in the back with a Taser last year. The suit was filed in the wake of Scott’s shooting.

In July, New York City reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Garner to resolve a wrongful-death claim over his killing by the police on Staten Island a year earlier. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted in the case.

On July 17, 2014, two officers approached Garner, who was unarmed, and accused him of selling untaxed cigarettes. One of the officers used a chokehold to subdue Garner, and that hold, along with the compression of Garner’s chest by other officers who held him down, was cited when the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

Last month, the city of Baltimore approved a $6.4 million settlement with the family of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spinal injury when the 25-year-old was handcuffed and shackled, but not buckled in, inside a police van in April.

Six officers charged in the case have pleaded not guilty and will stand trial on charges ranging from assault to murder.

In a case of an officer-involved shooting that went to trial recently, a federal jury last year awarded $97.5 million to the family of former Cottageville Mayor Bert Reeves. Reeves was fatally shot by a town police officer and the sum was settled earlier this year by both sides at $10 million.

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