By Barney Blakeney
Michael Slager is back again. Slager is the former North Charleston police officer videotaped in 2015 shooting an unarmed Walter Scott in the back five times as Scott ran away. Slager this week is being sentenced in federal court for violating Scott’s civil rights.
The incident occurred more than two years ago, but seems like it just happened yesterday. For the past year Slager has been sitting at the Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston. Since Dec. 4 when his sentencing hearings began local television news programs have broadcast photos of him entering the courthouse. He seems a broken man. Looking at Slager’s face in those broadcasts, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. His eyes seem to tell the story of a fallen man.
Of course, whatever sympathy I felt quickly was dissipated by the broadcasts of video showing Slager firing at Scott as Scott ran away. The video of Slager shooting eight times and hitting Scott with five of the rounds is the true pictures of a fallen man. I’m always agonized seeing Scott begin to stumble as the first shots hit him. One focus of the media frenzy each of Slager’s court appearances produces has been jail time. The mistrial that resulted from state charges of murder against Slager shifted that focus to federal authorities after Slager pled guilty to the federal charges last May. State prosecutors dropped their charges.
Prophetically during the six-week trial in state court Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott said, “I’m not optimistic that the community will be pleased with the outcome. Based on what we know about these types of killings, I hope with a tape that shows undisputed evidence this won’t be another Rodney King.” She referred to the 1991 taped police beating of King who was stopped after leading California police officers on a high speed chase. Scott noted Slager’s trial also was unprecedented in that video of the assault was recorded. Regarding Slager’s case she said, “But for the video of the incident, we’d never be at this place. Other similar incidents never even got to a trial. This kind of abuse has been ongoing for some time. We need to believe we will get a just verdict.”
So again Charleston and the world waits to see if a just sentence will be meted out in the Slager case. That’s a long shot since few cops ever face trial for shooting deaths, let alone get convicted. Philando Castile, Walter Scott, LaQuan McDonald and Eric Garner all are Black men killed by police in the past three years whose videotaped deaths show they posed no threat to anyone. But no officer was convicted for their deaths. And neither was Slager. His sentencing comes as a result of a guilty plea to civil rights violations!
So should anyone expect justice for Walter Scott? After Slager’s December 2016 mistrial, North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant said, “Everybody’s being apologetic, but the whole thing was a fiasco. The outcome was supposed to be based on the evidence. Well, the evidence was blatant.” The evidence hasn’t changed, so will a federal judge impose a sentence Black people feel is just? Slager’s facing a possible sentence ranging from zero jail time to life in prison. His prosecutors recommend a life sentence while his defenders think about 12 years is justified.
When Slager pled guilty to the federal charges, state prosecutor Scarlett Wilson in part said, “… we found justice in a resolution that vindicates the State’s interests by holding former police officer Michael Slager accountable for shooting Mr. Scott (in the back) when Slager knew it was wrong and illegal …” But North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant felt differently. He said, “I’m not satisfied and I won’t be satisfied until North Charleston Police Department has reform that teaches its officers not to shoot unarmed Black men. I don’t trust the judicial system. I think Michael Slager should get the same sentence he gave Walter Scott – life.” I think Bryant has a valid point. In many recent incidents where police shoot Black men, slicksters posing as civil rights lawyers travel around the country like ambulance chasers settling criminal deaths with payouts to relatives. And of course, they get a big chunk of the payoff themselves. Some of those guys, a few right here in our own backyards, have become wealthy men representing the families of murdered victims. Everybody gets paid, nobody goes to jail and we all wait on the next victim.
Don’t get me wrong, I think people should get some financial compensation for their loss. Children lose fathers or mothers, mothers lose sons or daughters. We all know no amount of money will bring them back. Edward Snowden’s little girl could have used $6 million, I’m sure. Remember him – the guy North Charleston police gunned won in 2000 and paid his family a mere $50 grand? Sure the money means something, but had someone gone to jail for a long time as a result of Snowden’s unjustified killing, Walther Scott might be alive today.
When I see Slager on TV, I can’t help but feel sympathy for the man. His family also has been devastated. There’s no winning here. But without some severe consequences there’s no incentive for cops to figure out less lethal alternatives when they find themselves in tricky situations. I know it’s easy to second guess a man’s actions after the fact, and we all make mistakes. But most of us have to pay for our mistakes. It should be no different for cops.