Two years after Walter Scott’s death, what has changed?

Looking back


A makeshift memorial was placed near where Walter Scott was shot one year after his death - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • A makeshift memorial was placed near where Walter Scott was shot one year after his death
Another year has passed since Walter Scott was killed. Shot five times by former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, eyewitness video of Scott’s death drew national attention and escalated the country’s growing conversation about police practices and use of force. Looking back over the past two years, what has changed — and, more importantly, what remains unresolved?

Michael Slager currently awaits a federal trial for civil rights charges stemming from Scott’s death. Slager was granted a statewide jury pool, the selection of which will begin May 9 in a Columbia courtroom. The trial will begin May 15 in Charleston, just across the street from where a mistrial was declared in Slager’s state proceedings. The state retrial is set to take place in August.

Slager was set to appear in court today on the anniversary of Scott’s death, but the hearing was postponed until later this month. Among the issues left to be determined by a federal judge are a slew of pretrial motions related to what can be said during the trial and whether Slager’s own words can be used against him.

Slager’s attorneys wish to exclude comments that he made to state investigators days after the shooting. SLED agents questioning Slager did not disclose the existence of eyewitness video of the shooting, which contradicted portions of his statement. Lead defense attorney Andy Savage argues that while investigators can withhold information from a potential suspect, they overstepped their bounds by not telling Slager’s attorney at the time that the video existed.

U.S. District Judge David Norton must also decide whether comments can be made regarding the “suffering of Walter Scott or his family.” The defense has asked that any testimony mentioning the physical, mental, or financial suffering faced by the Scotts be prohibited during the trial. While prosecutors say they do not intend to offer evidence of “general suffering” of Scott’s family, attorneys do plan to call his mother, Judy Scott, to the stand.

“Judy Scott will testify that, during the incident, she was on the phone with her son, Walter,” wrote prosecutors in recent court documents. “Judy Scott will testify that she was able to hear multiple electrical sounds, and that she heard Walter Scott react by screaming in pain.”

Who was in control of Slager’s Taser in the moments leading up to Scott’s death was the key matter of debate during the former officer’s state trial. Slager has claimed that after a struggle on the ground, Scott was able to wrestle away his Taser and attempt to use it against him. Slager’s attorneys have also requested that any mention of certain actions by Slager immediately following the shooting be excluded from the federal trial.

Michael Slager claims that Walter Scott pointed a Taser at the officer before stepping toward him - GRACE BEAHM/POST AND COURIER
  • Grace Beahm/Post and Courier
  • Michael Slager claims that Walter Scott pointed a Taser at the officer before stepping toward him
Prosecutors have stated that Slager told a fellow officer that he performed CPR on Scott after he was shot. The eyewitness video refutes this, which prosecutors say is “evidence of his consciousness of guilt” and “evidence that the defendant tried to cover up the fact that he acted contrary to his training and his department’s policies.”

While the matter of who had control of Slager’s Taser in the moments leading up to the shooting will certainly be examined during the federal trial, prosecutors also hope to discuss the Taser’s position after Scott’s death.

“After shooting Walter Scott, the defendant handcuffed him. The defendant immediately jogged back to where the Taser was on the ground, picked up the Taser, came back to Walter Scott’s lifeless body, and casually tossed the Taser on the ground, closer to Scott,” prosecutors wrote in a recent response. “Ultimately, the defendant picked up the Taser and reholstered it. In his interview with SLED, the defendant falsely asserted that he picked up the Taser from an area in between where Slager had struggled with Scott and where Scott ultimately fell.”

The federal attorneys add, “The defendant failed to acknowledge that at any point he dropped the Taser next to Scott’s body. In his state trial, the defendant claimed that he had no recollection of dropping the Taser next to Scott.”

Police Practices

South Carolina’s first officer-involved shooting of 2017 occurred in North Charleston on January 4. According to SLED, officers investigating a report of shots fired were shot at by a passing vehicle. One officer returned fire. No officers were injured in the incident. In 2016, SLED reported 41 officer-involved shooting incidents statewide, two of which involved the North Charleston Police Department.

The role that police practices in North Charleston played in Scott’s death has been widely contested in the courtroom and the community. In May 2016, North Charleston became the 11th city in the nation to undergo a policing review by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). Coming at the request of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers, the initial findings of the voluntary assessment are set to be released in the coming months. While some groups have called for a federal pattern-or-practice investigation which would enable the Department of Justice to force reform, at least one local group has voiced their confidence in the COPS review.

Mavis Huger speaks outside of North Charleston City Hall on behalf of Charleston Area Justice Ministry - DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
  • Mavis Huger speaks outside of North Charleston City Hall on behalf of Charleston Area Justice Ministry
Last month, representatives from Charleston Area Justice Ministries (CAJM) spoke about concerns over predatory and racially-biased police practices in front of North Charleston City Hall. Citing statistics gathered from local police departments, CAJM members said that the North Charleston Police Department has cut their number of public contact stops — police stops for minor infractions not leading to citation or arrest — by half in recent years. The coalition is now calling on the city of Charleston to follow in North Charleston’s footsteps and contract an independent agency to conduct an audit of the city’s policing.

“We are approaching the two-year anniversary of when Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston police officer during a routine traffic stop that did not have a routine end,” said Mavis Huger of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church. “That officer is facing charges, and North Charleston has responded by reducing their stops and calling in an external auditor.”

On a national level, the subject of policing reform has dramatically shifted under President Donald Trump’s administration. On March 31, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a review of all Justice Department activities, namely initiatives aimed at reforming local law enforcement agencies. These include “collaborative investigations and prosecutions, grant making, technical assistance and training, and compliance reviews. Sessions wrote that the review is to ensure that all department activities promote principles such as improving officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work.

While previous investigations by the Justice Department have revealed systemic problems in police departments in cities such as Baltimore and Chicago, Sessions attributed perceived civil rights violations to individual officers and not the departments as a whole.

According to Sessions, “The misdeeds of individual bad actors should not impugn or undermine the legitimate and honorable work that law enforcement officers and agencies perform in keeping American communities safe.”

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