Shot In The Back

In the wake of another racially charged shooting, here are four steps we must take.

Officer Charged With Murder After Video Shows Him Shooting Victim As He Runs Away

A routine traffic stop that ended with a white officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man has become the latest incident to ignite outrage over police-community relations.

South Carolina police officer Michael Thomas Slager was charged with first-degree murder yesterday for the shooting death of Walter Scott after a cell phone video revealed that Slager, who is white, shot and killed Scott, who is black, as Scott ran away. This directly contradicted previous claims by Slager, who stated that the two struggled and it was only after the victim gained control of the officer’s Taser that Slager resorted to using deadly force.

Officer Slager initially pulled over Walter Scott because he had a broken taillight. The shooting is reminiscent of other recent police incidents in South Carolina, such as last September when a state trooper stopped an unarmed black man for a seat-belt violation at a gas station, then shot and wounded him as he reached back into his vehicle to get his ID at the officer’s request.

These tragic incidents only emphasize the mistrust and deeply rooted challenges that exist between police departments and communities of color. But they also highlight important steps that need to be taken. These include the following:

1. Increase the use of body cameras. There’s no question that Slager’s use of force was not justified against Mr. Scott; instead, the question is, what would have happened had there been no video? The shooter lied about what happened until the video proved him wrong. President Obama’s three-year, $263 million package which includes money to increase police officers’ use of body-worm cameras is an important step.

2. Increase the use of special prosecutors in police misconduct investigations. In a brief on how to improve police-community relations, CAP’s Michele Jawando and Chelsea Parsons write that the perception that “local prosecutors have far too great of an interest to protect and justify the actions of local law enforcement” has “led to the erosion of trust.” We need to look no farther than the failure of grand juries to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner to know that is the case. Independent oversight would be a welcome change in these and other highly charged cases.

3. More federal oversight of police conduct. CAP’s Jawando and Parsons also write that the Department of Justice, despite granting billions of dollars each year to state and local governments for criminal justice, engages in “relatively little proactive activity to shape police practices” in those communities. They should take a more active approach. And there is no better person to lead that charge than Loretta Lynch, the highly-qualified nominee for attorney general who has been waiting for five months to be confirmed while the Senate Republican Leadership refuses to confirm her. It’s embarrassing that 50 years after Selma, Lynch, whose grandfather was a sharecropper and who would make history as the first African American woman to be attorney general, is being held up.

4. Better representation in all levels of government. Also yesterday, voters in Ferguson, Missouri went to the polls in turnout more than double last April’s election and elected two black city council members. Citizens making sure their voices are heard at all levels of government is another critical piece to the process of making sure that elected leaders, law enforcement, and other public servants are representative of the people the serve. That means making sure that the wealthiest and corporations aren’t able to buy politicians, but it also means that voters do their civic duty, too.

There are more steps we should take too. For example, implementing implicit bias training for law enforcement officers and encouraging police departments to take steps to increase diversity in their ranks are important measures to acknowledge differences and work to encourage multicultural perspectives.

BOTTOM LINE: There are proactive steps we must take toward solving the complex challenges of the criminal justice system and police-community relations. The fact that a white police officer has been charged with the murder of an unarmed black man only after a video revealed the officer’s previous lies is another reminder of what’s at stake.

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