Police Abuse

Shot in the Back

The killing of Walter Scott


On April 7, police in North Charleston, South Carolina, charged one of their own, Patrolman Michael Slager, with murder in the shooting death of a motorist named Walter Scott. Slager initially claimed through an attorney that he feared for his safety when he shot Scott. But video from a bystander shows Slager firing eight rounds at the fleeing man, striking him in the back.

"When you're wrong, you're wrong," North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said after viewing the recording. "When you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or a citizen on the street, you have to live with that decision."

Slager, who is 33 and white, pulled over Scott, who was 50 and black, because the Mercedes-Benz sedan that Scott was driving had a broken brake light. Scott took off on foot, apparently because he had an outstanding warrant for failure to pay child support. Slager pursued him on foot and eventually drew his Taser. According to a statement the patrolman made through his lawyer, Scott grabbed the weapon during a struggle, at which point Slager "felt threatened." Yet in the three-minute video, which shows the end of the chase and the immediate aftermath, Scott is not menacing Slager—he's running away as the officer fires his gun.

In the 1985 case Tennessee v. Garner, the Supreme Court said the Fourth Amendment allows police to shoot at a fleeing suspect only when he "poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others." It seems unlikely that Scott, a nonviolent offender who was armed at most with a Taser, and maybe not at all, fit that description. But without the video, Slager's version of events might have been accepted.

Two state legislators from the Charleston area say the shooting shows the need to move forward with a bill that would require police officers to wear body cameras. "My goal is to try to utilize modern-day technology to cut through the rumors and the lies when it comes to these unfortunate incidents," Rep. Wendell Gilliard (D–Charleston) told the Charleston Post and Courier. "Cameras don't lie."