By Barney Blakeney
Some say convicted killer Michael Slager’s 20-year sentence received last week represents justice. Others say the former North Charleston police officer should have received a life sentence. But most agree that Slager’s sentence in the shooting death of unarmed Walter Scott is a game-changer that likely will impact future cases of officers’ roles in the deaths of unarmed Blacks.
Federal Court Judge David Norton last week sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison for killing Scott in April 2015. Slager stopped Scott for a traffic violation and shot him after a chase and confrontation. Scott broke off the confrontation and was shot in the back as he ran away from Slager. Despite a video recording of the incident, a 2016 trial on a murder charge in state court ended in a mistrial. Slager was then charged by the U.S. Justice Department with violating Scott’s civil rights. Slager pled guilty to the charges which produced last week’s sentence.
The sentence is unprecedented in South Carolina. Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott described it as “awesome”. It’s been long enough to send a message to law enforcement officers who may have the perception any action on their part automatically will be accepted, she said. It gives them reason to think before taking actions that might be judged unnecessary. For the sentence to be handed down in Charleston is significant, Scott added. The 2016 mistrial reached by a local jury indicates “Charleston isn’t there yet,” she said.
But in the broader sense, Slager’s sentence is reason for encouragement, but not celebration. Two families suffered losses – both the Scott and Slager families – Scott noted. But Slager’s sentence could reverberate in similar cases around the nation. “This shouldn’t be an anomaly, but it is. Black folks have been preyed upon in the past and it didn’t even make the news. Things can slip backwards. The sentence may not serve as a model in such cases, but it could send a message,” she said.
North Charleston NAACP President Ed Bryant said, “20 years is a hell of a sentence. But had Slager been Black and Scott white, Slager would have gotten life! Slager shot Scott five times in the back, then lied about it. His intent was to kill Scott and cover it up. It worked until the video was introduced,” Bryant said. North Charleston officials immediately rallied to Slager‘s defense after the shooting.
Slager initially said after a chase he and Scott were locked in a struggle when Scott took his taser. In fear for his life, Slager said he then shot Scott. But a Black man walking to work witnessed the incident and recorded it on cell phone video. North Charleston officials already had circled the wagons around Slager when the video was produced three days later. Slager immediately was arrested.
Rev. Nelson Rivers, national vice president of Religious Affairs and External Relations for the National Action Network, said Slager’s sentence has the potential to do more for the African American psyche than produce any immediate change in policing strategies. Santana’s video was a game-changer, but alone didn’t produce Slager’s sentence, he said. Slager’s immediate firing from the North Charleston Police Department indicated he would not enjoy any official sanction and the city’s financial settlement to the Scott family indicated a perception of wrongdoing, Rivers said. Amazingly, the Justice Department stayed with the case though the presidential administration changed, he added.
Rivers anticipates the sentence, which that exceeded his expectations, will be appealed. But more importantly, he said he’s anxious to see if North Charleston police will take the next step toward providing more indiscriminate policing.