The age of bystander video was eventually going to catch up with American law enforcement somewhere, and that moment may have finally arrived in North Charleston, South Carolina. Officer Michael Thomas Slager, who shot 50 year-old Walter Scott eight times in the back and then tried to plant his own Taser gun on the victim to justify the murder, was unaware that his actions had been captured on video when he claimed to have followed “all procedures and policies” before shooting Scott in an act of self-defense.
The above video forced the police department, which initially supported Slager’s version of events, to grudgingly arrest their own officer. According to the New York Times, the department exhibits an all-too familiar contrast between those who ‘protect and serve’ and those who are supposedly protected and served.
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.
On its face, the video seems to put the kibosh on the usual legal defenses that policemen use when they murder ‘suspects.’ According to the Supreme Court of the United States, Slager, who allegedly stopped Scott for a broken taillight, is not allowed to shoot at a fleeing person unless they “pose a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” But even with this damning video, it is still possible for Slager to get off Scot-free by following best practices:
- Hire a powerful attorney. Ask any of the police who were videotaped beating LA motorist Rodney King in 1991, and they’ll tell you that an aggressive defense team is key to avoiding jail time. Slager is lucky: he probably has a home he can remortgage, a retirement fund he can raid, and a bank account he can empty to retain the sort of dedicated, capable counselor that his victim could never have afforded. An underpaid, overworked public defender — i.e. the best representation Scott could hope to have if he had lived to be arrested — will not suffice.
- Beg donations from white supremacists, authoritarians, and ammosexuals. Pursuant to the previous point, Slager can leverage outside funding sources to buy his acquittal; after all, it worked for George Zimmerman. Slager’s attorney should set up a donations system and ask Rudy Giuliani for help creating a PR campaign to ‘support our police,’ smear the victim, and create reasonable doubt.
- Rehearse a vivid recollection of being afraid. Slager must explain why he was so scared of Scott, and of what he might do when he ran away, that he had no choice but to shoot him in the back eight times. There is a whole world outside the frame of the video; surely Officer Slager has a different perspective that explains his actions. For example, maybe Scott was running towards a building that might potentially have people in it, or maybe Slager feared Scott would start smashing taillights. A little creativity will go a long way here, because the excuse only has to make sense to one juror out of twelve.
- Dehumanize the victim. Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who got away with pursuing and gunning down Michael Brown over $1.98 worth of cigarillos, made sure to give the grand jury an oddly-detailed recollection of his victim’s facial expressions within that split-second incident, imbuing the dead teenager with a magical ability to “bulk up” against gunfire. Indeed, Scott also appears to be ‘turning around’ in the moment he is shot to death, much the way Brown supposedly made an about-face to ‘come after’ Wilson as he emptied his magazine at a similar distance. This is where Slager must tell the jury what a monster Scott was, justifying his fear and making his trigger-finger itch.
- Blame society. This shooting doesn’t have to be Slager’s fault. It can be the fault of liberals who don’t protect police officers enough, or the State of South Carolina not funding police body armor enough. In fact, there are a thousand complaints Slager can make to emphasize how afraid he was: maybe there’s a scary pile of paperwork involved after a foot chase, for example. Or Slager can tell the jury that the justice system had been too easy on Scott, who was a monster that needed to be stopped, but only Officer Slager knew the truth and YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Ultimately, getting away with murder will require an explanation of the planted Taser that resonates with a jury. Slager or his attorney must invent a scenario in which this action makes sense: was he afraid no one would believe ‘the truth’ because cops have a heretofore-unknown credibility problem with judges and juries? Was he using the Taser as a marker so he could alert crime scene investigators to important evidence he didn’t want them to miss? Or was he bravely killing a small insect who wanted to make off with said vital evidence to frame him for murder? “WHY IS THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA HELPING THE INSECT WORLD FRAME OUR COPS?!”
I bet Walter Scott’s family can’t wait to find out which set of delightful excuses Slager intends to make. Personally, I can’t wait to hear apologists talking about how this sort of behavior has never, ever happened before.