Michael Slager (AP/Charleston County Sheriff's Office)

The lonesome death of Walter Scott: Why Michael Thomas Slager should share the blame

Authorities in South Carolina say Slager is just one man who made a mistake. But life—and death—is rarely so simple


Elias Isquith
April 9, 2015 10:45PM (UTC)

Soon after video recorded by Feidin Santana showing officer Michael Thomas Slager killing Walter Scott went public, Ed Driggers, the chief of the North Charleston, South Carolina, police force where Slager was once employed, spoke to the press. Like an increasing number of law enforcement officials as of late, Driggers found himself suddenly thrust into the media spotlight, tasked with explaining to an outraged nation why one of his officers used deadly force against an unarmed African-American, a 50-year-old father of four, who posed no threat.

But although Driggers’ public appearance was, on a superficial level, all too reminiscent of what we recently saw in places as disparate as Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland, Ohio; Staten Island, New York; and Los Angeles, California, the substance was different. Because rather than mount a defense of officer Slager — who repeatedly claimed that he shot Scott only after a routine stop over a busted taillight led to physical altercation, one during which he feared for his life — Driggers buried him instead. “I have watched the video and I was sickened by what I saw,” he said. “And I have not watched it since.”

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What a difference a smartphone can make. As Judd Legum of Think Progress has noted, if not for the remarkably brave Santana, who used his smartphone to record the final moments of Scott’s life, the only version of the story the world would know is the version Slager told. Which, in plain language, was a monstrous lie. There's no evidence that Scott tried to use Slager’s taser against him, as the officer claimed; the only reason it was found near the dead man’s body, it appears, is because that’s where Slager put it. And contrary to what Slager said in the official incident report, he never feared for his personal safety; as he pumps Scott’s back full of bullets he is calm, cool and collected.

According to the work of one local reporter, Slager’s neighbors didn’t suspect him of being especially malevolent or inclined toward violence. To them, he seemed normal — even nice. Driggers responded with a similar mix of sadness and bewilderment. “I want to believe in my heart of hearts that it was a tragic set of events after a traffic stop,” Driggers said on CNN. “I always look for the good in folks,” he continued, “and so I would hope that nobody would ever do something like that.” Keith Summey, the town’s mayor, was also fatalistic: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” he told the press. “And if you make a bad decision … you have to live by that decision.”

Neither man was interested in damning Slager; and considering he is now facing charges for murder, that’s probably for the best. But both men went further than simply biting their tongues; they made a point of distancing Slager’s behavior from that of the overall North Charleston police force, too. “The one does not totally throw a blanket across the many,” Driggers said, according to the Los Angeles Times. The mayor and he noted that the NCPD is composed of more than 340 officers. The video traveling all over the world was hideous, no doubt. But it told us nothing of the overall law enforcement system; it was merely a single man making a horrible, horrible mistake.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, because Slager is not the only officer seen in the video. After Scott had fallen to the ground, prostrate and bleeding, and after Slager had barked at him to put his hands behind his back (so he could handcuff him before he lost the ability to move his arms), officer Clarence Habersham, who is African-American, arrives at the scene. His body language, like Scott’s, indicates this was not the first time he’d come upon such a scene. He seems unperturbed as he kneels down to check Scott’s pulse. He makes no real attempt to save the back-shot man’s life. And that’s understandable, really; Scott was likely already dead.

We don’t know yet what exactly transpired between Slager, Habersham, or the third, Caucasian one who joins them later. We don’t know how much they knew, and we don’t know when they knew it. What we do know, though, is plenty. We know that the police department of North Charleston was content to treat Slager’s story as fact; and we know that this was not the first time a member of the force had engaged in acts that we’d otherwise describe as thuggery. We know that in the past five years, police officers in South Carolina have used their guns against 209 human beings; and we know that they were exonerated of wrongdoing every single time.

Lastly, we know that Walter Scott — a father, brother, cousin and veteran; a man who loved to joke and loved to dance, and who was known as the extrovert of his family — died after being shot multiple times when his back was turned. And we know that if he lived long enough to be conscious as Slager tightened the cuffs around each of his wrists, his spent his final moments on this Earth alone, and enchained.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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