South Carolina police officer Michael Slager has been charged with murder after a cellphone video shows a fatal shooting involving fleeing suspect Walter Scott. (Still from Feidin Santana’s video)
The narrative was similar to one that had played out in the local press before: Seconds after a struggle, a white police officer who claimed to be fearing for his safety repeatedly shot a black man, almost instantly killing him at the scene.
And that’s where the story might have ended — the tale of a handful of police officials against the unspoken account of a dead black man — if it hadn’t been for one citizen who captured the entire event on a cellphone’s camera.
The video depicting the fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott by police officer Michael Slager, 33, in North Charleston, S.C., leaves very little open to interpretation. Scott was pulled over by Slager around 9:30 a.m. local time on Saturday for having a broken tail light. For reasons still unknown, Scott bolted from his vehicle and a foot pursuit ensued.
According to officials who recounted Slager’s version of events, a scuffle ensued in a grassy field behind a pawn shop shortly after the pursuit began. Radio dispatches indicated Slager opened fire on Scott after the man reached for his taser.
Hours after the incident, city officials announced Slager, who has been on the force since 2009, was placed on administrative leave — a routine standard of practice most agencies follow after an officer is involved in a shooting.
And for three days, that was the narrative repeated by city officials and local media outlets.
Then, a four minute-long video was handed over to the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper. The footage not only contradicted Slager’s account of the shooting, but disproved it entirely.
The video, shot by 23-year-old Feidin Santana over a chain-linked fence by a bystander from several yards away, shows Slager firing at Scott several times as the man attempted to flee from the officer. Moments later, Slager is seen picking up a black, rectangular device resembling a stun gun and dropping it near Scott’s lifeless body.
It took paramedics nearly 10 minutes to arrive on scene after the shooting. Scott was declared dead at the scene.
The circumstances surrounding the shooting — Slager, the officer, is white while Scott, the shooting victim, was black — prompted community leaders and city officials to call for calm, urging members of the public to reserve judgment until after a complete investigation had concluded.
But any reservation was quickly dismissed after the video began circulating online Tuesday. At a hastily arranged press conference Tuesday evening, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced Slager would face murder charges in connection with the shooting.
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Summey told reporters. “When you make a bad decision, (it doesn’t matter) if you’re behind the shield or a citizen on the street — you have to live with that decision.”
On Wednesday, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers said Slager had been fired.
“I was sickened by what I saw,” Driggers told reporters at a news conference, adding that he reviewed the video once and “have not watched it since.”
Despite the firing, Driggers announced the city will continue to supply health insurance for Slager’s spouse. Driggers said the decision to continue health benefits for the former officer’s wife, who is eight months pregnant, was “the humane thing to do.”
The police chief also announced that his agency had recently placed an order for 250 body cameras — 100 under a grant previously approved, and a new order for 150 additional cameras — so that each officer on his force would have one (the Post and Courier notes the agency has more than 340 sworn officers).
One day after the shooting, Charleston attorney David Aylor signed on to represent Slager, telling reporters that “once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.
“Officer Slager believes he followed all the proper procedures and policies of the North Charleston Police Department,” Aylor said.
But hours after the cellphone footage hit the Internet, Aylor withdrew himself as Slager’s attorney. In an interview with the news website Daily Beast, Slager said his earlier comment was made based on the information he had at the time and that he had not seen the video until it was reported by the media.
“At no point … is anybody above the law,” Aylor told the website. “I won’t be participating in anything related to this case moving forward.”
The murder charge Slager carries for the murder of Walter Scott has a potential sentence of 30 years to life in prison. Slager is being held without bail at a county detention center.