A North Charleston jury’s failure to reach a verdict Monday in the trial of a white police officer whose fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man was caught on video has reignited a national discussion about police violence, amid ever-present questions about the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that continues to afflict Black people and how it informs police use-of-force.
On April 4, 2015, Officer Michael Slager shot 50-year-old Walter Scott eight times in the back after Scott ran away following a brief scuffle during a routine daytime traffic stop. Scott was unarmed. Slager was later charged with murder after cellphone video footage surfaced showing that the officer had fired the shots as Scott was fleeing, contradicting his police report that he shot Scott out of self-defense in fear for his life.
Slager’s month-long trial ended December 5, 2016, in a mistrial after the mostly white jury announced they were deadlocked following four days of deliberations. Throughout the trial, jurors viewed video footage of the encounter multiple times, which showed Slager raising his gun, taking aim, and firing multiple rounds into Scott’s back even as the unarmed man fled in the other direction. Scott was more than 15 feet away when Slager began shooting.
EJI believes that the inability to hold a police officer accountable in the face of some of the most compelling video evidence to emerge showing the death of another unarmed Black man points towards America’s legacy of racial injustice. Thousands of incidents take place every day in this country in which people of color – particularly Black people – are unfairly shot, beaten, harassed, threatened, humiliated, or disrespected by law enforcement officers.
The lingering distrust of Black communities towards law enforcement harkens back to the era of racial terror, when police officers and government officials not only failed to protect Black people, but often acquiesced or assisted in lynchings. EJI believes that understanding how police violence is rooted in our country’s history of racial inequality requires truthfully facing that history and its legacy.