Video shows moments before shooting
Published 10/04/2015 | 14:11
Questions persist about the fatal shooting of a black South Carolina motorist after the release of video taken from the car of the white police officer charged over the death.
The dashboard camera footage released by state police showed North Charleston officer Michael Thomas Slager pulling over Walter Scott for a broken brake light last weekend.
The video captures the moments leading up to a shooting that has sparked outrage as the latest example of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man.
The shooting itself was captured by a witness on his iPhone and provided the impetus for the officer to be charged with murder and fired.
That is a striking difference from the recent cases in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, where white officers were not charged over the deaths of African-Americans, prompting protests and intense debate about police treatment of minorities.
Saturday's traffic stop opens routinely as Mr Scott is stopped in a used Mercedes-Benz he had bought days earlier, footage from the patrol car showed. The officer is seen walking towards the driver's window, requesting Mr Scott's licence and registration. Slager then returns to his cruiser.
The video also shows Mr Scott beginning to get out of the car, his right hand raised above his head. He then quickly gets back into the car and closes the door. After Slager goes back to his patrol car, minutes later, Mr Scott jumps from his car and runs. Slager chases him.
What is missing is what happens from the time the two men run out of the frame of dashboard video to the time picked up in a bystander's mobile phone video. The phone footage starts with Mr Scott getting to his feet and running away, then Slager firing eight shots at the man's back.
The dashboard camera is in stark contrast to the phone footage of the later moments of the encounter. On the dash cam video, Slager never touches his gun during the stop. He makes no unreasonable demands or threats.
"It is possible for something to happen in that gap to significantly raise the officer's perception of risk," Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina.
Police and Slager's first lawyer initially said the officer fired in self-defence during a scuffle over his department-issued Taser. Within days of Saturday's encounter, the witness video surfaced and immediately changed perceptions of what had happened.
There is almost nothing in Slager's personnel file to suggest that his superiors considered him a rogue officer capable of murdering a man during a traffic stop. In the community he served, however, people say this reflects what is wrong with policing today: officers nearly always get the last word when citizens complain.
The mostly black neighbourhood where the shooting took place is far from unique, said Melvin Tucker, a former FBI agent and police chief in four southern cities who often gives evidence in police misconduct cases.
Nationwide, training that pushes pre-emptive action, military experience that creates a warzone mindset, and a legal system favouring police in misconduct cases all lead to scenarios where officers see the people they serve as enemies, he said.
"It's not just training. It's not just unreasonable fear. It's not just the warrior mentality. It's not just court decisions that almost encourage the use of it. It is not just race," Mr Tucker said. "It is all of that."
Slager's lawyer, Andy Savage, said he is conducting his own investigation, and that it is "far too early for us to be saying what we think".
Slager, 33, is being held in jail pending an August 21 hearing on a charge of murder that could put him in prison for 30 years to life if convicted.
His file includes a single excessive use-of-force complaint, from 2013: a man said Slager used his stun gun against him without reason. Slager was exonerated and the case closed, even though witnesses told the Associated Press that investigators never followed up with them. Police say they are now looking at that case again amid questions by the man Tasered and witnesses who said authorities never questioned them about it.
Slager's mother, Karen Sharpe, told ABC's Good Morning America that she could not believe her son - who loved being an officer and had a baby on the way - would have been involved in the incident.
She said she is taking one day at a time and has not watched the mobile phone video that helped bring about Slager's arrest.
"I just have to let it be and hope God takes care of everybody involved - not only my family but the Scott family because I know they're grieving just like I'm grieving, so I want them to know that," she said.