The Walter Scott Case Was a Test

Can cops kill with impunity? Now we know the answer.

Former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager in the courtroom in Charleston, South Carolina, for his murder trial for the shooting death of Walter Scott, Nov. 3.

Grace Beahm/Pool/Reuters

Two Aprils ago, Officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott, a 50-year-old resident of North Charleston, South Carolina. Slager is white; Scott was black. In the video footage, captured by a bystander on his cellphone camera, Scott can be seen running away from Slager following a brief scuffle. As Scott flees, Slager raises his gun and fires eight times, killing him. The officer cuffs him and later drops a small black object near his body.

Even in light of shootings such as the one that claimed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Scott’s killing shocked the conscience. Here was obvious misconduct: a police officer using lethal force against a fleeing suspect, stopped for an infraction—a broken taillight—not an actual crime. Voices on both sides demanded accountability, and the city of North Charleston moved swiftly. Within days, Slager had been arrested and charged with murder. By June, he was indicted on that and a charge of voluntary manslaughter. He was released on bond at the beginning of 2016 and went on trial for the killing of Scott in October.

On Monday, the jury made an announcement. “Despite the best efforts of all members, we are unable to come to a unanimous decision,” they wrote in a note to Judge Clifton B. Newman. The proximate reason for the deadlock was a single juror, who told Newman that he could not “with a good conscience approve a guilty verdict” on either charge and would not change his or her mind. But there were signs of a deeper impasse among the jurors, 11 of 12 of whom were white. The Post and Courier reports that, as of Monday, much of the jury remained “undecided.” Instead of conviction or acquittal, Michael Slager got a mistrial.

You can think of the Slager trial as a proposition. Given an obvious injustice—the methodical shooting of a fleeing suspect—would a jury convict a police officer of criminal violence? Would it reject the idea that wearing a badge grants almost total impunity for any action? These questions were answered with terrible clarity: No.

Of all possible outcomes in this case, a null result was among the most likely. It is unusual—to the point of extraordinary—for a cop to be convicted for any shooting.

That Slager was even arrested was a rare punitive step for officers who kill in the line of duty. In its investigation of police accountability in South Carolina, the Post and Courier sheds light on why this is the case. In the wake of shootings, initial examinations are often deferential and even shoddy. In the case of South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division, “officers are shielded from the kind of questioning detectives typically use to uncover the truth.” This includes a level of leeway that doesn’t exist in any other criminal investigation. Officers in South Carolina, for example, get “cooling-off periods,” where investigators wait several days before questioning. There’s little exploration of previous misconduct, and officers are even allowed to make handwritten statements, rather than submit to direct questioning.

These practices exist in many other states. And they exist within a web of broad relationships that make accountability even more difficult. A district attorney who wants to prosecute a cop, for example, has to deal with the fact that police are essential to the criminal justice system as witnesses and investigators. Prosecutors risk alienating valuable sources if they hold police officers accountable for suspect shootings. Beyond the system itself, there are larger cultural attitudes toward police that make accountability difficult. Most Americans give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt when it comes to shootings: If a cop does it, it must be legal. In his letter to the judge, the obstinate juror in the Michael Slager trial illustrates this view. “We all struggle with the death of a man and with all that has been put before us. I still cannot, without a reasonable doubt, convict the defendant,” the juror wrote. “At the same time my heart does not want to have to tell the Scott family that the man that killed their son, father, and brother is innocent. But with the choices I cannot and will not change my mind.”

Which gets to the core of the problem: Police officers have extreme discretion for the use of force. As long as officers can credibly say they were “in fear for their lives,” they can escape serious sanction. It’s why, in each shooting that goes to trial, we hear police officers say the same thing. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” said Ferguson officer Darren Wilson of Michael Brown. Betty Jo Shelby, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, officer who shot and killed Terrence Crutcher, said she feared for her life and thought the unarmed Crutcher would kill her. Ray Tensing, the University of Cincinnati officer who killed 43-year-old Sam DuBose during a traffic stop near the campus, remembered thinking, “Oh, my God, he’s going to run me over and he’s going to kill me.” (The jury couldn’t reach a verdict in Tensing’s case, either.)

All of this, we know, is tied to racism. We know black Americans are more likely than any group to face investigatory traffic stops, despite no evidence of worse driving. We know black Americans are most likely to be stopped when driving through predominantly white neighborhoods or when driving luxury cars, a sign that police are acting on pervasive (but rarely articulated) beliefs about race, place, and where people belong. We know that—among white Americans—there is a strong cognitive connection between “blackness” and “criminality,” such that an image of a black person triggers thoughts of crime, and a reminder of crime can conjure images of black people. We know, too, that these biases are especially strong among police officers, which contributes to disproportionate contact between law enforcement and black communities. And we know that the history of American law enforcement is intimately tied to notions of control. There is a reason that black Americans throughout the 20th century have described police forces as “occupying armies,” and it isn’t the prevalence of crime.

Because we know all of this, we cannot look at the Slager trial in isolation. It is part of a larger story: of police forces that target black Americans for intrusive stops, of officers who are more likely to use lethal force against them, of legal standards that make that lethal force acceptable in most cases, of systems that discourage accountability, of a public that gives law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, and of an organized movement to disparage and delegitimize claims of police abuse.

Because we can’t look at Slager in isolation, we also have to look at what it means for everyone that the bar for prosecution is so high that an officer could kill a fleeing suspect and still escape legal sanction. It means any officer can kill any American for almost any infraction, and almost always escape punishment. It means black Americans, who face far more than their share of this violence, live lives with effectively less value in the eyes of the state. It means white Americans, whether they see it or not, share this risk, too. And it means we should start asking ourselves this question: How is the world we live in functionally different from one where police can execute with impunity?