Thank God for camera phones. If not for such devices, and the fortuitous recording by a courageous bystander, the Walter Scott shooting by a North Charleston police officer would have had a very different narrative.
Prior to the emergence of the video, the PR spin was in favor of Officer Michael T. Slager: He was an honorable Coast Guard veteran. He was defending himself against a dangerous individual who took his Taser. He feared for his life. However, by the time the video was released — and only because it was released — the officer's account was discredited. Murder charges were swiftly brought against him, he was fired from his job, and his lawyer dropped him like a hot rock. There is no question that the situation wouldn't have played out this way if there had been no video contradicting Slager's story.
It's a travesty that it takes video evidence to give an unarmed defendant with bullets in his back the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps forensic evidence would have discredited the officer's story at a later date, but the presumption in cases of this type has always been to believe the officer's version of events. One can only imagine how many times this same scenario has played out when someone with a camera was not present, and as such, the fact that murder charges have been brought against Officer Slager is an anomaly. Still, this is just a small step toward justice.
North Charleston officials deserve some small degree of credit for acting immediately. Unlike officials in Ferguson, Mo., they did not defend their officer to the end by refusing to bring charges against him. But like Ferguson, the shooting revealed ongoing tensions between the African-American community and the police force, tensions that have only escalated since the video was made public. If Slager is acquitted of the murder charge, expect those tensions to get even worse.
The importance of the bystander's video in the Scott case underscores both the limitations and the significance that police body cameras could have in the future. The bystander in the Scott case purposely kept his camera phone on during a significant portion of the interaction between Scott and Slager, and his camera captured a perspective that Officer Slager's body camera surely would have missed, especially if he was trying to misrepresent Scott's role in his own shooting. The counter argument is that if Slager had been wearing a body camera, he would have thought twice about shooting an unarmed, fleeing suspect in the back.
The real shame of this incident is that the video did not save Scott's life, and its existence is no guarantee that the offending officer will ultimately be brought to justice. At best, it shines a spotlight on police misconduct — misconduct that has undoubtedly happened before and would have likely gone unpunished this time.
Now that North Charleston's racial tensions and police department are in the national spotlight, the real question will be to see how things change, if at all. Body cameras for police are on the way, but the money for those had been appropriated long before this incident. Mayor Keith Summey wants to have a series of public meetings to address police relations with the community. Both proposals are nice, but they come nowhere close to addressing the problems that led to this tragedy.
Sadly, it may take many more videos of this type, ones in which police are caught violating both protocol and a victim's rights, before there is any real change. The video in this case has done a tremendous amount to spotlight a problem in North Charleston that exists in communities all over the United States. Unfortunately, this does nothing for the Scott family. And whether or not this horrible tragedy brings about changes in the community remains to be seen.