By Marquis Jenkins
I wasn’t prepared to hear the news that Michael Slager, the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott, would have to spend 20 years in prison for depriving him of his civil rights. His sentencing in federal court last month was unusual at best. As we’ve seen time and again, even the most egregious forms of police brutality tend to go unpunished.
Maybe I’ve gotten a little cynical. As a community organizer, I’ve seen first-hand how police violence can wreck families and whole communities, leaving them with little recourse against the perpetrators. By the time the courts speak, if they speak at all, distrust in the justice system runs deep.
When Slager faced the courts of South Carolina, I was there supporting members of the North Charleston community as they sat through a state trial that everyone thought was a slam dunk: With our own eyes, we all saw the moment, captured on video, when Slager in cold blood shot Scott several times in the back as he fled in fear.
Some of us have seen the video so many times, we no longer find it shocking. But at the trial, jurors had a chance to watch it for the first time. And they heard directly from Feidin Santana, the courageous Dominican immigrant who risked his life and recorded the fatal encounter — including Slager’s attempt to cover his tracks after the incident. If it wasn’t for Santana’s harrowing footage, Slager might have gotten away with the killing, as the officer did all he could to obstruct justice by making up a story about Scott: that his victim charged at him with his service Taser and that he then shot him in self-defense.
But there was video contradicting all of that. And Santana’s testimony about how he gathered the strength to record it all was a breath of fresh air during a trial where Scott seemed to receive the highest level of scrutiny — as if he was the one who committed the crime. Santana got his share of scrutiny, too. Truth is, no one who witnesses a violent crime should have to fear repercussions for coming forward or face intimidation for recording the police the way Santana did. His heroism shouldn’t have been met with harassment.
During a key portion of Santana’s testimony, as Slager’s lawyer sought to paint him as self-interested and anti-police, the state’s star witness kept it real about why he was taking a stand: “I don’t tolerate injustice,” Santana told the packed courtroom. I was there. He was speaking for all of us.
And yet injustice is exactly what the people of South Carolina got when the 12 jurors in the case couldn’t agree on whether to convict Slager for Scott’s murder. The jury couldn’t even reach agreement on the lesser charge of manslaughter, a conclusion that the video amply supported. Speaking on national television, Dorsey Montgomery, the jury foreman and only black juror on the panel, suggested days after the mistrial that race may have played a role in the deliberations by some of his fellow jurors — even though none of them outwardly expressed any racist views as they wrestled with what to do with the officer’s case.
Had it not been for the federal government, which decided to separately charge Slager with a civil rights offense, the officer would’ve walked, like so many officers who brutalize our communities have walked.
Still, justice may be on hold. Since the sentence was handed down, Slager’s lawyer has indicated he is planning to appeal it, which means a reversal is possible. My hope is that the Department of Justice will do its part and object, just like it objects whenever any other criminal defendant asserts their right to appeal.
At the same time, I’m aware that the same DOJ that secured Slager’s conviction and sentence has nonetheless not been very forthcoming with members of the North Charleston community who want to see real reform in their police department.
Case in point: DOJ has done a complete about-face about its willingness to work with the city of North Charleston on uprooting abusive policing practices. Since shortly after Scott’s death in 2015, the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, also known as the COPS Office, agreed to work with city authorities to examine where the North Charleston Police Department has gone wrong and how it can do better for the people it serves.
But to this day, and almost certainly as a result of the new administration, the COPS Office has been stonewalling the public, refusing to release the findings of the government’s review in North Charleston. We’ve pushed the city to push DOJ to disclose this information, to no avail. DOJ has denied our own request for this information, and we’re now appealing that denial. All we have today instead is a so-called “memorandum of understanding” between DOJ and the city of North Charleston that seems to do very little to strike at the core of police bias, excessive stops, and unnecessary use of force.
We know this because we’ve seen a draft of this memorandum, and it’s a far cry from the agreement the city and DOJ struck in 2016. In the new memo, there’s zero mention of advancing community-policing standards and no push for public reporting of any technical assistance DOJ may provide. If things are as they look on paper, this new “understanding” between North Charleston and DOJ is not a real step toward true accountability and transparency, despite the city’s best efforts to seek help to drive down crime.
So I have my reasons to be wary of DOJ and the city — and of the justice system more generally. Everything I’ve seen so far with the Walter Scott case, all these delays and foot-dragging, confirms in my mind something those of us in the policing reform movement have known for a long time: that the criminal justice system was not made for people of color.
But that won’t keep me and the community from fighting. Even as we wait for the outcome of Slager’s appeal and for North Charleston officials to offer concrete solutions on how it plans to keep its police department accountable, we’ll keep pushing for change until the memory of Walter Scott gets the respect it deserves.
Marquis Jenkins is a community organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Institute.