North Charleston officer faces murder charge after video shows him shooting man in back
By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier
A North Charleston police officer was arrested on a murder charge Tuesday after video surfaced of the lawman shooting eight times at 50-year-old Walter Scott as he ran away.
Scott died Saturday after Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager, 33, shot him in the back.
The State Law Enforcement Division confirmed that the officer had been booked into Charleston County’s jail late Tuesday afternoon on a murder charge. The agency typically investigates whether officer-involved shootings in South Carolina are justified.
The footage, which The Post and Courier obtained Tuesday from a source who asked to remain anonymous, shows the end of the confrontation between the two on Saturday after Scott ran from a traffic stop. It was the first piece of evidence that could contradict a statement that Slager released earlier this week through his attorney.
Mayor Keith Summey said during a news conference that Slager’s “bad decision” had prompted his arrest.
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Summey said. “If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
Attorney David Aylor, who released a statement on Slager’s behalf earlier this week, said Tuesday that he wasn’t representing the officer anymore.
It was not immediately clear whether Slager had hired a new lawyer.
“This is a terrible tragedy that has impacted our community,” Aylor said.
The three-minute clip starts shaky, but it steadies as Slager and Scott appear to be grabbing at each other’s hands.
Slager has said through his attorney that Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle.
The video appears to show Scott slapping at the officer’s hands as several objects fall to the ground. It’s not clear what the objects are.
Scott starts running away. Wires from Slager’s Taser stretch from Scott’s clothing to the officer’s hands.
With Scott more than 10 feet from Slager, the officer draws his pistol and fires seven times in rapid succession. After a brief pause, the officer fires one last time. Scott’s back bows, and he falls face first to the ground near a tree.
After the gunfire, Slager glances at the person taking the video, then talks into his radio.
The cameraman curses, and Slager yells at Scott as sirens wail.
“Put your hands behind your back,” the officer shouts before he handcuffs Scott.
As another lawman runs to Scott’s side.
Scott died there.
Deputy Coroner Brittney Martin was not immediately available Tuesday to confirm how many times Scott was shot.
At the time, Scott was wanted for arrest on a Family Court warrant, Charleston County sheriff’s Maj. Eric Watson said Tuesday.
He had a history of arrests related to contempt of court charges for failing to pay child support. The only accusation of violence against Scott during his lifetime came through an assault and battery charge in 1987.
The mayor and Police Chief Eddie Driggers expressed sympathies to Scott’s family. Driggers grew emotional as he referred to his police officers as his children.
“It’s been a tragic day for many, a tragic day for me,” Driggers said. “It is not reflective of this entire Police Department. … One does not throw a blank across the many.”
The footage comes amid a discussion about race and policing in the U.S.
Scott was black. Slager is white.
The nationwide conversation was sparked by the fatal shooting in August of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was unarmed at the time, but witnesses said he got into a struggle with Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, and was shot during the scuffle.
Though a grand jury did not find any reason to indict Wilson, the shooting ignited protests, some of which turned violent. A “black lives matter” movement inspired talk about whether police nationwide too quickly resort to deadly force against black men.
During that wave of public sentiment that prompted rallies in the Charleston area, South Carolina Trooper Sean Groubert, who is white, was arrested for shooting Levar Jones, a black man who had reached into his pickup for his driver’s license during a September traffic stop in Columbia. Groubert faces a charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and the state settled a lawsuit by Jones for $300,000.
The development in Scott’s death also came on the same day when SLED arrested a North Augusta police officer in the Feb. 9, 2014, shooting death of Ernest Satterwhite. The officer, 25-year-old Justin Gregory Craven, faces a count of discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle, a felony charge punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
Leaders urge calm
Community leaders in North Charleston have stressed the need for calm in the aftermath of Scott’s death. The North Charleston Police Department has fought accusations in past years that aggressive enforcement tactics have unfairly targeted poor, black communities.
Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, served for more than five years with the department without being disciplined, his attorney said.
Two people filed complaints against Slager during his time with the force, including one man who said the policeman shot him with a Taser for no reason in September 2013. Internal investigators, though, exonerated the officer of any wrongdoing.
Ed Bryant, the president of the North Charleston chapter of the NAACP, was taken aback by a description of the video. He had not seen it, he said.
But he encouraged investigators and prosecutors to pursue justice in Scott’s death and urge openness from the authorities.
“If he was running away, how does that pose the need for deadly force?” Bryant said. “If he’s leaving, they should just pursue him. But shooting him? That’s another story.”
Pastor Thomas Dixon said that he has not yet seen the video, but that he and other community activists are preparing for its release and trying to work out a plan.
“We do believe it’s necessary to expect that there may be some sort of community reaction,” he said.
Dixon added that he is concerned about outsiders coming into the community to incite violence and rallies. He said the outcry of anger so often ends up “tearing down our communities,” and emotions should be diverted to something more constructive than violence.
“Good people get caught up with crazy people,” he said. “The smart reaction is to just gather and peacefully let your voice be heard without any foolishness or craziness.”
Dwight James, executive director of the S.C. State Conference of the NAACP, said leaders were gathering in Columbia on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the case.
James said he was looking forward to all the facts coming out.
“We’re in touch with law enforcement on multiple levels,” he said. “The last feedback I got was that (the officer) was not talking.”
Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network said he was suspicious of Slager’s story because he had quickly hired an attorney, though many officers-involved in shootings do the same.
Rivers attended a vigil for Scott last weekend.
“Police officers don’t get lawyered up that fast,” he said, “unless they’ve done something really bad.”
Slager said earlier this week in a statement from his attorney at the time that his encounter with Scott had started Saturday morning as a routine traffic stop.
His department said he pulled over Scott’s Mercedes-Benz sedan near Remount and Craig roads because it had a broken brake light. But at some point, Scott ran away with Slager in pursuit on foot. Scott’s passenger stayed with the Mercedes.
During the foot chase, Scott confronted Slager, according to the statement from the officer’s lawyer. Slager got out his Taser to subdue the man, but Scott took the device during a struggle, the statement said. That’s when the officer fired at Scott several times because he “felt threatened,” it added.
The bystander’s cellphone camera continued to roll as Slager stands over Scott and another officer puts on gloves.
“(Expletive) abuse,” the cameraman says. “(Expletive) abuse.”
During the two and a half minutes after the shooting until the end of the video, the backup officer lifts up Scott’s shirt to check his wounds. But no one immediately starts CPR.
The video ends with Slager standing next to Scott, who was still face down, and checking the dying man’s pulse.
Summey, the city’s mayor, said the cameraman handed over the footage to Scott’s family, who gave it to SLED. City officials reviewed it late Tuesday afternoon.
“We’ve got 343 police officers,” Summey said. “This is a bad decision by one of those 343.”