How a bystander’s video revealed the truth about a police shooting in South Carolina

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    Joining me to talk about this story's resonance in the wake of similar incidents around the country are Brian Hicks, a columnist for The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, Jessica Pierce, the national co-chair of the Black Youth Project, and Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University.

    Brian Hicks, there a history of racial tensions that we should know about, especially in North Charleston?

    BRIAN HICKS, The Post and Courier: Yes, this has been going on for years, Gwen.

    Several members of the community, the NAACP, they have claimed for well over a decade that North Charleston police use racial profiling and — to pick on black citizens. And what they do, their standard M.O., according to their critics, is to stop a black man on some minor traffic violation, and then harass him, use it to detain him to see if there's an arrest warrant out for him, or to search him and his car.

    This has been a charge that's been made. The police department has refuted this charge. And now Slager, with this action, has gone and proved exactly what the critics said has happened has been happening.


    Philip Stinson, how unusual is it for officers in general to be charged with this sort of crime, with this sort of offense? We saw it happen very rapidly here.


    I'm sorry.

  • PHILIP STINSON, Bowling Green State University:

    Well, there are a lot of police shootings, but it's very rare that an officer is actually charged with an on-duty shooting.

    We see it about four times a year, in my research, where an officer is charged with an on-duty shooting, charged with murder or manslaughter. And, typically, in those cases, it's very similar to this case, in that we have a completely unjustified shooting.

    Most of the time in the cases that we have studied, other officers have come forward that have witnessed the shooting and have said that the officer who shot someone wasn't justified, that there was no imminent threat of deadly force or serious bodily injury. It simply wasn't justified.

    Here, we have a little bit different situation. We're starting to see this in a few cases where we have somebody with a smartphone who was able to take a video.


    Let me ask you about that. You have been doing a lot of research on this topic. And I wonder whether you believe that the difference in this case is the smartphone, is the existence of video.


    Oh, absolutely. There is no question about that.

    I'm not so sure that we wouldn't have the same result eventually, because forensic investigation would have found that the man was shot in the back seven or eight times. And it clearly — under the law in the United States, you can't shoot somebody in this type of circumstance in the back if they're fleeing.

    There's two things that really trouble me about this case. One is that the officer's first thought when the man that's running away from him is not to run after him and tackle him, but to shoot him, as if it were on target practice, a very casual type thing. And the second thing is that his second thought was to immediately try to cover it up, to tell the dispatcher that the man had grabbed his Taser, as if he had the Taser when he was shot, and then to place the Taser next to Mr. Stone's (sic) body, and it's just — clearly, the officer's intent was to cover it up.

    And that's very troubling.


    Jessica Pierce, the Black Youth Project has been speaking out about this, not only in New York, but Cleveland and Albuquerque, all around the country. And how different is the discussion now, since Ferguson, about these kind of issues?

    JESSICA PIERCE, Black Youth Project 100: The discussion for us really isn't different, I would say, at this point in time.

    It's a continued discussion. We still look at the fact that, every 28 hours, we know that a black person is going to be killed by police force in this country. So, you know, for us, it's a day-to-day issue that we're looking at in the same way.

    I think, for us, in this case, you know, we're happy that an officer is being indicted, or I should say a former officer at this point. But, for us, when we talk about justice, justice is not indicting one officer. It's not the conviction even of one officer. Justice, for us, is an indictment of the entire system at this point.

    And I think that that's what we really need at this point, is not to look at this one individual case, but to look at the entire system and say, what type of changes do we need on a systemwide level?


    Well, you heard Brian Hicks said, was that there had been complaints like this before, but obviously the video made the difference.

    Does that make you feel better, that video exists, that some citizens now feel empowered to videotape these kinds of incidents?


    Yes. I think that's one of the really great things that we have seen, especially on social media, is that people have been sharing the fact that it's completely legal in all 50 states in this country, as a citizen, to take a video of an interaction with a police officer, as long as it doesn't impede with them doing their jobs.

    And I think that, before, people might have been nervous or scared. And I do think it's a helpful thing that people are feeling empowered to do it, that it is happening, and that, contrary to our belief, that, you know, body cameras are going to make the difference — even the mayor, when he came out yesterday, talked about he's ordering more body cameras, because they have 115 body cameras, but 340 officers.

    But, for us, this wasn't a body camera situation. Right? This wasn't a body camera that captured what was happening. It was a civilian capture. So, I think, for us, it makes us feel a little bit better. But I think that feeling is temporary.


    I want to talk to — get back to you on the body camera issue.

    But, Brian Hicks, I want to ask you about something you wrote today in your column. You said that officer Slager didn't just wound Walter Scott, kill Walter Scott. He wounded the community. Tell me what you mean by that.


    Well, he set back community relations with the — between the neighborhoods and the police by years.

    He's proven critics of the police department to be correct, at least in this instance, and he's created an atmosphere of distrust that was already there. He's basically fanned the flames. I think that most people would say that the city acted swiftly and decisively here when they saw the video.

    And I agree that I think the forensics were of such that the state law enforcement division probably would have cried foul in this case, but, still, the residents today at a rally, at a press conference, very upset, still upset with the city, because this is just — this just confirms a pattern that many people have seen for years.


    Jessica Pierce just said that this is systemic, not individual failure. What do you think about that?


    I can't speak for any other police departments. I know a lot of police officers in North Charleston. I think they're, by and large, good people who are risking their lives doing rough jobs for a very modest pay for what they have to do.

    But when you have 343 people, you're going to have people of different viewpoints and people who do things wrong. I'm not saying that any of the charges that have been leveled against the police department earlier weren't true. Certainly, nothing like this has happened before with North Charleston.


    Philip Stinson, I want to ask you about the body camera issue. We now see what people are doing with their smartphones. But, in your research, have you discovered whether body cameras are a beginning of a solution to this sort of activity?


    I believe they are.


    I'm sorry. I'm talking to Philip Stinson. Go ahead.


    However, it is…


    Go ahead.


    However, it's just another tool that's available for investigators to use.

    I think it's important that not only we have body cameras, but that we do have citizen videographers, people who are using their smartphones to take — to take — to film these types of incidents, because it's important to get this from different angles. You know, you see a different picture from the officer's vantage point with a body-worn camera than you would from the smartphone.

    But I do think it's important. I think body-worn cameras are important. I think they ought to be standard equipment for officers. We don't even have best practices in place yet in terms of how body cameras ought to be used, when they should be turned on, when they should be turned off. And those things need to be fleshed out. And that's something that's happening now across the country.


    Jessica Pierce, what about what's not caught on tape?


    I think that that's the bigger question. Right?

    I think even when we look in this case, now we're looking back into his history, right, as a police officer, and we found that there is one case where he was interviewing a suspect around a burglary, and that person said that they were Tased for absolutely no reason, and they said that they were beaten and then dragged on the floor, right?

    So I think that's really the question, is, we don't find out about some of these situations until it's too late. And so I think that that's why it is a systemic issue. It's not just about these individual police officers, because I think we can humanize the story of anyone.

    And we all know stories of good and bad people in every single institution, I think. That's why we have to indict the institutions and we have to say we need to pass the End Racial Profiling Act. We need to talk about publicly elected independent police review boards that have some level of hire-and-fire power as an accountability system.

    It's not to say that we want to be completely — have all oversight at all times over police officers, but I think it's more than just police officers' responsibilities to keep our communities safe.


    Jessica Pierce of the Black Youth Project, national coordinator, co-chair, Brian Hicks of the Charleston Post and Courier, columnist, and Professor Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University, thank you all very much.


    Thank you.



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