Civil rights groups seek federal review of South Carolina police shootings

Amid mounting suspicion that police officers in South Carolina attempted to cover up the circumstances of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, civil rights leaders are urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate all fatal shootings by police in Charleston County in the last two decades.

"No police officer in Charleston County has ever been convicted of killing a black man," Elder James Johnson, president of the Tri-County National Action Network, said at a news conference Friday at North Charleston City Hall.

Activists from the North Charleston NAACP, the Tri-County National Action Network and the Coalition (People United to Take Back Our Community) contend there is a long history of suspicious cases of black men dying at the hands of the police.

Yet allegations by black citizens of police profiling and excessive force went unheeded, they said, until Walter Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed African American, was fatally shot by white police Officer Michael T. Slager on April 4.

Slager, who claimed he had acted in self-defense, was not charged with murder until a bystander released a cellphone video showing that Slager had shot Scott in the back as he fled.

More than 200 officer-involved shootings have been reported in South Carolina "in recent history," the civil rights advocates said, with only "a very small number" resulting in the officer being charged.

“You see the T-shirt we’re wearing?” said the Rev. Thomas Dixon, an African American community organizer in North Charleston, pointing to the words emblazoned in capital letters across his chest: “Do You Believe Us Now?”

"It is commonly believed in the AfricanAmerican community, those most affected by officer-involved shootings, that law enforcement agencies have deliberately filed false police reports, tampered with evidence, turned a blind eye to the facts of their investigations and launched covered-up campaigns in order to avoid prosecution for their acts of violence perpetrated against black people in North Charleston and in Charleston County,” the Rev. Dixon said, reading from a joint statement. “This is commonly referred to as the Blue Wall of Silence.”

Slager, 33, was eventually fired and arrested on a charge of suspicion of murder after the cellphone video showed him firing eight times at Scott as he ran away. Scott was struck in the back by four rounds and a fifth round grazed his ear. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

In calling for a federal inquiry, civil rights activists said there were several recent cases locally in which black men were shot and killed in confrontations with police. Last June, Denzel Curnell, 19, died during a struggle with a Charleston police officer who said he questioned Curnell because Curnell was wearing a hoodie in 85-degree heat — a sign that he planned criminal activity, the officer said.

The officer was not indicted. Police ruled that Curnell shot and killed himself with his own gun during the struggle — an account the family challenges.

An in-depth federal investigation, Dixon said, would be "a major brick in the bridge-building process between law enforcement and the community.”

Dena Iverson, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said “the department will review the request when it is submitted.”

Staff writer David Zucchino in Durham, N.C., contributed to this report.

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