I had a Muslim friend who, whenever she heard of a terrorist incident, first hoped that the terrorists weren’t Muslim. I confess to feeling the same way when hearing a report that a policeman killed an unarmed person – i.e., I hope the policeman wasn’t white and the deceased wasn’t black. Well, this week in South Carolina, the policeman Michael Slager was white and the deceased Walter Scott was black.
Based on those facts, the New York Times was prepared to immediately jump to conclusions. According to its editorial board:
- “The case underscores two problems that have become increasingly clear since the civic discord that erupted last year after the police killed black citizens in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. The first, most pressing problem is that poorly trained and poorly supervised officers often use deadly force unnecessarily, particularly against minority citizens. The second is that the police get away with unjustly maiming or killing people by lying about the circumstances that prompted them to use force. The shooting death of Walter Scott on Saturday would have passed into the annals of history unremarked upon had a bystander not used a cellphone to document what happened after Mr. Scott encountered the police officer, Michael Slager, after a routine traffic stop.”
Let me count the ways the editorial board in incorrect:
- The shooting in SC is dramatically different than the deaths in NY, Cleveland, and Ferguson, and the prompt criminal charges in SC reflect that.
- Poor training and poor supervision have nothing to do with the SC cop shooting a fleeing man.
- Police lying, just like any other variety of lying, must be exposed by conflicting evidence.
- The killing in Ferguson didn’t “pass into the annals of history unremarked” even though there was no video evidence, so why would the Times suggest that the Walter Scott shooting would?
As I read some of the hundreds of comments to the editorial, most readers scoffed at the suggestion that the shooting resulted from poor training and poor supervision. Then the next day, NY Times columnist Charles Blow shied away from the training and supervision issue, but joined the growing consensus that this issue of white-cop/black-victim was systemic and would have escaped detection without the video:
- This case is yet another in a horrifyingly familiar succession of cases that have elevated the issue of use of force, particularly deadly force, by officers against people of color and inflamed the conversation that surrounds it.
- What would have happened if video of this incident had not surfaced? Would the officer’s version of events have stood? How many such cases must there be where there is no video?
- But I would argue that the issue we are facing in these cases is not one of equipment, or even policy, but culture.
I suggest that the editorial board and columnist Blow should keep their powder dry until two unreported facts are developed:
- Resisting Arrest. The incidents in NY and Ferguson involved victims who resisted arrest, and one of the Lessons Learned that was noted in passing was that it is never a good idea to resist arrest. In SC, we have been told that the incident was a routine traffic stop, and then the video picks up with a fleeing victim. Apparently, a witness saw the cop and the victim fighting on the ground. This missing link seems like an important component of the story for me, but the media seems to have minimal interest.
- Racial animus. After the cop in Ferguson, Darren Wilson, was cleared by state authorities, the feds attempted to prove a civil-rights claim by checking the cop’s history for any evidence of racial animus. The same thing should be done here before concluding that this was a race-based shooting in SC.
Incidentally, the Charles Blow column included some interesting information about the Ferguson shooting that I was not aware of:
- “One of the most disturbing features of the Department of Justice’s report on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was the number of witnesses who said that they were afraid to come forward because their version of events contradicted what they saw as community consensus.”