On April 4, 2015, a 50-year-old black man named Walter Scott was pulled over for having a broken taillight in North Charleston, South Carolina. Scott fled the vehicle, after which 33-year-old white police officer Michael Slager pursued him and shot him several times from behind. Scott was unarmed and died at the scene. On Thursday, a federal district court ruled that his death was murder and sentenced Slager to 20 years in prison.
Some amount of justice has been realized for Scott's murder. So, why isn't the verdict cause for real celebration? Because it isn't actually evidence of improvements being made in methods of policing, systemic racism, or even holding officers accountable. In every way, Thursday's ruling is an exception to the norm.
"Less than 1% of the officers who kill black people are ever convicted," activist Brittany Packnett tweeted on Thursday. "Slager’s conviction should not be the anomaly."
The Root found that there were fewer instances of white officers serving prison sentences for killing black victims between 2007 and 2017 than people being struck by lightning or winning the Powerball jackpot. While 70 percent of Americans who are tried for killing someone are convicted, the conviction rate is below 1 percent for officers who have murdered black people, as Packnett reminds us.
Slager's guilty sentence is largely the result of factors that aren't present in the majority of police brutality cases. Eyewitness Feidin Santana filmed the entire shooting, providing irrefutable evidence that Slager's use of lethal force was unjustified. The event took place in broad daylight and is clearly visible in the footage.
The video was even able to prove that Slager had lied about the events. He claimed that Scott had attempted to take his taser, but the video shows no sign of this happening. Witness Santana described that the officer "had control of the situation ... and Scott was trying just to get away from the taser." Slager's police department said that he and other arriving officers had tried to perform CPR on Scott and deliver him additional first aid. The footage does not show this occurring, either.
Santana's video led to Slager being arrested and charged for murder just three days after he killed Scott, which is unusually quick for these situations. A Guardian article demonstrated the extent to which the footage shaped the narrative around Scott's death by publishing "A News Report We’d Be Reading If Walter Scott’s Killing Wasn’t On Video." The mock article suggested that Slager had been "forced to use his service weapon" and stressed Scott's "history of violence and a long arrest record." It repeated Slager's false testimony about the events without question.
"What we have seen in these videos is something the police say never happens," activist Deray Mckesson told The Guardian in 2015. "We saw media complicity in police lies, we saw planted evidence, we saw racial profiling. We saw it all in one instance. It just highlights how systemic this issue is. This story has been played out in American history and blackness over and over again."
Defining "accountability" is tricky because there's no way to rectify murder. But as Packnett says, "This is currently what our system allows for accountability. And *literally* 99% of the time, even this doesn’t happen."
"Accountability shouldn’t be the norm, either," Packnett wrote. "Because Walter Scott should still be alive."
The norm should be police protecting community members, not killing them. The norm should be an absence of racial bias in officers' actions. Celebrating successes or milestones is fine, but until those goals are realities, we need to focus on the progress we've yet to make.
As of this writing, American police officers have killed over 1,049 people in 2017.