A white police officer in South Carolina was arrested and charged with murder on Tuesday, after a shocking video emerged showing him fatally shooting an unarmed black man attempting to flee from the scene. The video, which was first published in the New York Times, captures the lethal confrontation between Officer Michael Slager and Walter Scott that quickly ensued during a traffic stop, which included Slager firing eight shots at Scott.
Slager originally told police that Scott had stolen his Taser and attempted to use it against him. This narrative was largely accepted by police authorities, at least according to what they initially told local media. The first report of the fatal encounter reported by the Post and Courier on Saturday ran with the headline, “Man shot and killed by North Charleston police officer after traffic stop; SLED investigating”:
An officer’s gunfire disrupted a hazy Saturday morning and left a man dead on a North Charleston street.
Police in a matter of hours declared the occurrence at the corner of Remount and Craig roads a traffic stop gone wrong, alleging the dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.
The officer’s account, witness statements and other evidence gathered from the scene are now the subject of a State Law Enforcement Division investigation to determine whether the shooting, the state’s 11th this year involving a lawmen, was justified.
A statement released by North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said a man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him.
That did not work, police said, and an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.
The description reads eerily similar to police deaths that occur all around the country. If it had not been for the video’s eventual publication, it’s easy to imagine this being the press’ final narrative of how Scott died. Oftentimes, newspapers struggle to report anything more than what law enforcement agencies tell them.
In the case of the Post and Courier’s first story, the paper’s note that “in a matter of hours” police were quick to label the incident nothing more than a “traffic stop gone wrong” is revealing, as the video that has since surfaced clearly shows a very different account: Slager shoots Scott in the back multiple times; an object that appears to be Slager’s Taser is placed next to Scott’s body as he lays handcuffed on the ground.
It’s unclear when authorities became aware that a video of the incident existed, but on Monday, Slager appeared increasingly defensive. Speaking through an attorney, he doubled down on his actions to the same paper, saying he had “felt threatened” by Scott and needed to “resort to deadly force”:
A North Charleston police officer felt threatened last weekend when the driver he had stopped for a broken brake light tried to overpower him and take his Taser.
That’s why Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, a former Coast Guardsman, fatally shot the man, the officer’s attorney said Monday.
Slager thinks he properly followed all procedures and policies before resorting to deadly force, lawyer David Aylor said in a statement.
Monday’s developments filled in some of the blanks in what was South Carolina’s 11th police shooting of the year.
By Tuesday, the Times and the Post and Courier had obtained a bystander’s footage of the incident and the stories published that day are a direct about-face of the initial account, with both papers leading with news of the officer’s arrest and murder charge. The Post and Courier’s lead below:
A white North Charleston police officer was arrested on a murder charge after a video surfaced Tuesday of the lawman shooting eight times at a 50-year-old black man as the man ran away.
Walter L. Scott, a Coast Guard veteran and father of four, died Saturday after Patrolman 1st Class Michael T. Slager, 33, shot him in the back.
Five of the eight bullets hit Scott, his family’s attorney said. Four of those struck his back. One hit an ear.
In just a few days, the account’s drastic evolution in a single newspaper highlights yet again the problems surrounding police reporting—issues that have received national attention following recent events in Ferguson and New York City. Scott’s tragic death underscores the power video can bring to police accountability. As Scott’s family said during an appearance on the Today show Wednesday, this video helped an officer avoid a successful cover-up. “It would have never come to light,” Walter Scott Sr, Scott’s father, said. “They would have swept it under the rug, like they did with many others.”