NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The fatal shooting of an unarmed black man fleeing from a police officer has stirred outrage around the nation, but people in this South Carolina city aren’t surprised, calling it inevitable in a police department they believe focuses on petty crimes and fails to keep its officers in check.
There is almost nothing in Michael Thomas Slager’s police personnel file to suggest that his bosses considered him a rogue officer capable of murdering a man he just pulled over for a broken tail light. People in the community he served say this reflects what’s going wrong with policing today: Officers nearly always get the last word when citizens complain.
“We’ve had through the years numerous similar complaints, and they all seem to be taken lightly and dismissed without any obvious investigation,” the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice-president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Thursday.
The mostly black neighbourhood in North Charleston where Slager fired eight shots at the back of Walter Lamer Scott on Saturday is far from unique in this regard, said Melvin Tucker, a former FBI agent and police chief in four southern cities who often testifies in police misconduct cases.
Nationwide, training that pushes pre-emptive action, military experience that creates a warzone mindset, and legal system favouring police in misconduct cases all lead to scenarios where officers to see the people they serve as enemies, he said.
“It’s not just training. It’s not just unreasonable fear. It’s not just the warrior mentality. It’s not just court decisions that almost encourage the use of it. It is not just race,” Tucker said. “It is all of that.”
Both Slager, 33, and Scott, 55, were U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Slager had the dismissed excessive force complaint and Scott had been jailed repeatedly for failing to pay child support, but neither man had a record of violence. Slager consistently earned positive reviews in his five years with the North Charleston Police.
Slager’s new attorney, Andy Savage, said Thursday that he’s conducting his own investigation, and that it’s “far too early for us to be saying what we think.” Slager’s first attorney said he followed all proper procedures before using deadly force, but swiftly dropped him after the dead man’s family released a bystander’s video of the shooting.
The officer, whose wife is eight months pregnant, is being held without bond pending an Aug. 21 hearing on a charge of murder that could put him in prison for 30 years to life if convicted.
As a steady crowd left flowers, stuffed animals, notes and protest signs Thursday in the empty lot where Scott was gunned down, many said police in South Carolina’s third-largest city routinely dismiss complaints of petty brutality and harassment, even when eyewitnesses can attest to police misbehaviour. The result, they say, is that officers are regarded with a mixture of distrust and fear.
Slager’s file includes a single excessive use-of-force complaint, from 2013: A man said Slager used his stun gun against him without reason. But Slager was exonerated and the case closed, even though witnesses told The Associated Press that investigators never followed up with them.
“It’s almost impossible to get an agency to do an impartial internal affairs investigation. First of all the investigators doing it are co-workers of the person being investigated. Number two, there’s always the tendency on the part of the departments to believe the officers,” Tucker said.
Mario Givens, the man who accused Slager of excessive force in 2013, told the AP that Slager woke him before dawn by loudly banging on his front door, and saying “Come outside or I’ll tase you!”
“I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I raised my arms over my head, and when I did, he tased me in my stomach anyway,” Givens said. “They never told me how they reached the conclusion. Never. They never contacted anyone from that night. No one from the neighbourhood.”
Givens said he’s convinced Scott’s death could have been prevented if Slager had been disciplined in his case.
“If they had just listened to me and investigated what happened that night, this man might be alive today,” he said.
Darby also wonders if Saturday’s fatal shooting might have turned out differently had the department thoroughly investigated the 2013 Taser complaint.
“I think he would have been rebuked instead of fired,” Darby said. “But maybe it changes the way he sees things.”
Darby and other civil rights leaders want North Charleston to create an independent citizens review board to review complaints against police, since “law enforcement is going to almost always give itself the benefit of the doubt.”
Such boards are few and far between in South Carolina.
North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said Wednesday that the department now plans to review Givens’ complaint, although he wouldn’t say what difference that could make now.