Michael Slager shot Walter Scott from about 15 feet away while Scott was running away from him after a routine traffic stop. The cell phone footage that emerged in the wake of the incident left absolutely no room to argue, as Slager tried to do after the fact, that he was in any immediate danger when he pulled the trigger.
Scott’s shooting—which took place in April 2015, a few days before the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore—became a kind of litmus test in the discourse around police reform and Black Lives Matter. If you could find a way to defend Slager’s decision to kill Scott, it meant you would probably never be convinced, under any circumstances, that a police officer could ever be guilty of a crime for taking someone’s life in the line of duty. As it happened, at least one such person got seated on the jury for Slager’s murder trial last year in South Carolina, resulting in a deadlock that suggested that the American legal system was simply not equipped to deliver justice to victims of police violence.
But the hung jury didn’t mean that Slager was out of the woods. In addition to the prospect of a second criminal trial in South Carolina, the former police officer also faced federal charges brought by the Department of Justice that accused him of lying to investigators, using a firearm in a violent crime, and violating Scott’s civil rights by using excessive force.
A federal trial was scheduled to begin later this month. On Monday, however, the Department of Justice announced that Slager would plead guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights. According to the terms of the deal, the other federal charges against Slager—as well as the state murder charge—have been dropped, placing his fate in the hands of a federal judge who will now be in charge of deciding on an appropriate sentence. According to the Post and Courier, “Slager’s conviction for deprivation of rights under the color of law carries as little as no prison time and as much as a lifetime behind bars.”
So what does Attorney General Jeff Sessions think about all this? It was, after all, the Obama-era Justice Department that initiated the federal case against Slager, and Sessions has made it abundantly clear since taking office that he doesn’t see eye to eye with the previous administration on the question of police violence.
In a statement about Slager’s plea deal, Sessions had this to say:
The Department of Justice will hold accountable any law enforcement officer who violates the civil rights of our citizens by using excessive force. Such failures of duty not only harm the individual victims of these crimes; they harm our country, by eroding trust in law enforcement and undermining the good work of the vast majority of honorable and honest police officers.
The statement—which came out just a few hours before the Washington Post reported that the Justice Department will not be pursuing charges against the officers who fatally shot Alton Sterling last summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—is consistent with Sessions’ strongly-held belief that police officers who engage in violent misconduct should be regarded as individual bad apples rather than actors in a dysfunctional system that requires fundamental reform. It’s also consistent with his belief that public criticism of police practices should be tempered because it hurts morale among officers and makes it harder for them to do their jobs.
But what’s most striking about the statement from Sessions—a former prosecutor who sees himself as a passionate advocate on behalf of crime victims everywhere—is that he didn’t even see fit to invoke Walter Scott’s name. While “victims” in general garner a brief mention, the 50-year-old father of four who was gunned down by Slager for no apparent reason does not. Instead, Sessions emphasizes the “harm” done to “our country” when “honorable and honest police officers” are undermined by their less honorable and less honest colleagues.
Sessions is not wrong, to be fair: One of the reasons it’s a national crisis that police kill hundreds of Americans every year is that it gives people a damn good reason to distrust law enforcement. But that’s just one of the reasons. Another one is that Walter Scott is dead. Sessions should have mentioned that.