Michael Slager, the North Charleston, S.C., police officer who shot and killed black motorist Walter Scott, was sentenced to 20 years in prison yesterday. He had earlier pleaded guilty to violating Scott’s civil rights.
This is one of the few times a police officer has ever been held criminally accountable for an on-duty shooting. But Slager’s is not a story about accountability, or about fair justice. Slager was caught dead-to-rights on video. The video of the shooting went viral and made national headlines. Even with that video, state prosecutors were unable to convict him. (A jury in state court deadlocked.) Slager finally pleaded guilty on the federal civil rights charges. My hunch is that was probably a strategic mistake. I’m not at all convinced that a jury would have convicted him in federal court, either. Juries just don’t like to convict cops.
Why so cynical? Consider that even as Slager’s sentence came down this week, a former Arizona police officer was acquitted after shooting and killing unarmed Daniel Shaver. Those who have seen the body-cam footage describe the shooting as an execution. Also this week, NYPD officers shot and killed a 69-year-old man during a 4 a.m. raid. The police were looking for a 30-year-old man on drug and gun charges. A 90-year-old man who was also in the apartment said the two thought they were being robbed. And in Los Angeles, we learned this week that more than 300 sheriff’s deputies are on a secret misconduct list for offenses ranging from lying under oath to domestic violence to possible sexual assault. But thanks to union-negotiated rules, that list is kept secret from the public, from defense attorneys and even from prosecutors. Not only were the deputies on the list never criminally charged, they get to keep testifying before juries. They get to keep sending people to prison.
But you needn’t even leave South Carolina to see just how anomalous Slager’s conviction really is. Last year, I published a series on policing in the state that included, among other incidents …
A police raid for a misdemeanor gambling violation in which an officer shot and killed suspect Ernest Russell Jr. The officer’s report on the raid was so far removed from body-camera footage of the shooting that it’s hard to see how both could be about the same incident. The officer was never disciplined.
Another task force raid on a Myrtle Beach man for a couple of low-level marijuana sales that resulted in police shooting the suspect multiple times. The officers severely wounded the man and nearly killed him. He lost the use of several organs and is paralyzed. Ballistics testing showed that police claims that the man had fired a gun at them were wrong — the gun hadn’t been fired. Surveillance video then emerged that contradicted police claims to have knocked and announced multiple times before battering down the man’s door. None of the officers associated with the raid were ever disciplined.
A bogus police stop and roadside search in the town of Aiken that resulted in white officers probing a black man’s anus in search of drugs. There appeared to have been no justification for either the stop or the search. Audio of the search was captured on the officers’ microphones. One officer received extra training as a result of the incident.
In another incident, a police officer stopped a man after claiming the man activated his turn signal too late. Dash-cam footage shows that this was false. After a few minutes, the officer beat the man, then arrested him. The man was then subjected to numerous medical procedures without his consent. A prosecutor later dismissed all charges against the man. Not only were the officers involved never disciplined, but one was later promoted.
In 2014, a South Carolina police officer shot and killed a 70-year-old man after mistaking his gun for a cane. The officer was never charged.