Unexamined Premises

Time to Rein in the Cops: Walter Scott Didn't Have to Die. UPDATED

Eight times, in the back, for a busted taillight

Eight times, in the back, for a busted taillight

The man was stopped for a broken taillight. Then he was dead, shot eight times by a South Carolina cop. And now the cop has been charged with murder:

A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.

The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.

The shooting came on the heels of high-profile instances of police officers’ using lethal force in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The deaths have set off a national debate over whether the police are too quick to use force, particularly in cases involving black men.

Leave it to the New York Times to instantly racialize the incident; after all, the Narrative must be advanced at every opportunity. But this story is larger than that. Because, in this era of militarized, trigger-happy police, what officer Slager did to poor Walter Scott could happen to any of us:

The shooting unfolded after Officer Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. Mr. Scott ran away, and Officer Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. He fired his Taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Mr. Scott, according to police reports.

Never a good idea to run from a cop. Especially when, as Scott did, you have a rap sheet:

Mr. Scott had been arrested about 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support or show up for court hearings, according to The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston. He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon, the newspaper reported. Mr. Scott’s brother, Anthony, said he believed Mr. Scott had fled from the police on Saturday because he owed child support.

“He has four children; he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record,” said Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family. “He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”

But let’s start at the beginning: the traffic stop. With municipalities increasingly strapped for cash in the Obama economy, the police have become, in essence, motorized, armed tax collectors, who can stop just about any vehicle on any road for any reason. Or, “on suspicion,” for no reason at all. And when one of the citizens stopped for a minor infraction has a thing or two he’d rather not discuss with the cops as they run his plates and a criminal background check, the situation can quickly turn desperate — as it apparently did in North Charleston.

Mr. Stewart said the coroner had told him that Mr. Scott was struck five times — three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear — with at least one bullet entering his heart. It is not clear whether Mr. Scott died immediately…

Mr. Scott’s brother said his mother had called him on Saturday, telling him that his brother had been shot by a Taser after a traffic stop. “You may need to go over there and see what’s going on,” he said his mother told him. When he arrived at the scene of the shooting, officers told him that his brother was dead, but he said they had no explanation for why. “This just doesn’t sound right,” he said in an interview. “How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?”

How? Simple. Give the police near-total immunity for their behavior as “public servants,” instruct them to bring in money by just about any means necessary, rely on the conservatives to support almost any excess, enjoy the blessing of the state and federal courts, and provide them with enough weapons — not just guns, but tasers, nightsticks, huge flashlights, etc. — to take down and out anyone who resists. We can sort out guilt or innocence later, possibly posthumously. Joseph K. had a better chance at justice in Frank Kafka’s The Trial.

America 2015: where everything you have, including your life, belongs to the state. Who won the Cold War, again?

UPDATED: The brave man who filmed the incriminating video.