A South Carolina police officer was charged with murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black man after authorities obtained a video that showed him unleash a volley of gunfire while the victim ran away, officials said.
North Charleston Police Officer Michael Thomas Slager was charged Tuesday in the death of Walter Lamer Scott, 50. The charges were filed less than an hour after the city’s mayor and police chief received a cellphone video that appears to show Scott fleeing as Slager fires at least eight shots in his direction.
The shooting will probably be the latest turn in a national discussion on police use of force and race relations, following police killings of unarmed men last year in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. Slager is white.
“It’s not about race. It’s about power,” attorney L. Chris Stewart, who is representing the Scott family, said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “That officer thought he could just shoot this man. He thought Mr. Scott was expendable.”
If convicted, Slager could face the death penalty or life in prison.
Scott’s family was quick to point out that without the video, Slager’s decision to open fire might have been considered justified.
“I don’t want to see anyone shot down like my brother was shot down. I’ve seen the video. If there wasn’t a video, would we know the truth?” Anthony Scott, the victim’s brother, said during a news conference Tuesday night. “We do know the truth now.”
The clash between Slager and Scott followed a traffic stop Saturday. A video of the incident, made public Tuesday by the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston, S.C., appears to show Scott running when Slager opens fire. (Warning: The video is graphic and contains explicit language.)
In the video, Scott, wearing a green T-shirt, appears to drop something near the officer’s feet and sprints in the opposite direction. The officer fires seven times, pauses, and then fires an eighth round as Scott slumps to the ground.
The officer then walks slowly toward Scott’s prone body and begins yelling, “Put your hands behind your back,” the video shows. Other officers are then seen arriving as the person behind the camera mutters the word “abuse” as well as profanities.
Scott was initially wanted on a Family Court warrant, according to the Post and Courier report.
The video differs drastically from an account Slager gave Monday. In a statement released through attorney David Aylor, Slager claimed Scott began to wrestle for control of his stun gun after a routine traffic stop.
Slager said he “felt threatened and reached for his department-issued firearm and fired his weapon.”
Police reports filed after the shooting suggest Slager was chasing Scott on foot. After opening fire, Slager spoke into his police radio, announcing: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” according to police documents.
North Charleston Police Chief Ed Driggers said Tuesday that Scott had been struck with a stun gun during the clash.
In a brief phone interview, Aylor told The Times that he removed himself as Slager’s attorney on Tuesday. He would not say why.
Members of Scott’s family broke down Tuesday after watching a video of the shooting at their Charleston home, Stewart said.
The family plans to file a wrongful death suit against the city and Police Department, Stewart said. The attorney declined to identify the person who recorded the shooting, describing him only as someone who happened to be passing by.
Stewart believes the video is the only reason Slager is facing criminal charges.
“It would have just been the standard story of a police officer giving his version and that would be the end of it,” he said. “In this case, this officer gave his story, and it turned out not to be true.”
It was not immediately clear how many times Scott was shot.
The FBI in South Carolina is investigating the shooting, according to a spokeswoman for the Justice Department.
It is likely the FBI investigation would concern whether Slager violated Scott’s civil rights. Federal investigators launched a similar inquiry last year, after Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in the St. Louis suburb.
Driggers, the police chief, appeared visibly upset as he discussed the shooting with reporters Tuesday.
“It’s been a tragic day for many,” he said.
Slager was fired Tuesday, a city spokesman told The Times. The officer had been with the department for five years.
In the statement he released Monday, Slager said he had never before faced disciplinary action.
City records show Slager had been accused once of unnecessary use of force, in September 2013. A burglary suspect accused Slager of using excessive force after the officer deployed his stun gun during a physical altercation, but the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau ultimately exonerated Slager.
Although Scott’s brother would not say Scott was the victim of racial profiling, he believes the shooting, taken together with other incidents where unarmed black men have been killed by police around the country, should prove a clarion call for police reform.
“Let’s let the police departments reform themselves, ’cause there has to be change,” he said.
Elder James Johnson, local president of the National Action Network, said late Tuesday that the department had struggled with the issue of racial profiling in the past, specifically when it comes to motor vehicle stops.
Slager was taken into custody Tuesday by agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the agency investigating the shooting. Thom Berry, an agency spokesman, said he did not know whether the dashboard camera in Slager’s patrol vehicle captured the incident.
North Charleston police officers do not wear body cameras, a police spokesman said.
Slager was booked into the Charleston County Jail about 6 p.m. local time on a murder charge, according to online jail records. He was denied bond during a brief court appearance, but Berry said that decision was simply because of a procedural rule. Slager is likely to appear before a Circuit Court judge Friday.
The person who recorded the incident brought the video to Scott’s family, who turned it over to state law enforcement officials, North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey told reporters.
Driggers and Summey both said North Charleston has 343 police officers, and they referred to the shooting as a mistake made by a single member of the department.
“The one does not totally throw a blanket across the many,” Driggers said.
Acknowledging tension in the city, pastor Thomas Dixon urged residents to remain peaceful if they decide to take part in demonstrations.
“We’re calling on the community to, in light of this revelation, to remain calm, honor the wishes of this family,” Dixon said during a news conference. “The family has asked specifically that the death of this young man not be dishonored.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called the shooting senseless.
“After watching the video, the senseless shooting and taking of #WalterScott’s life was absolutely unnecessary and avoidable,” Scott said on Twitter.
“My heart aches for the family and our North Charleston community. I will be watching this case closely.”
The victim was engaged to be married and worked for a trucking supply company, Stewart said. The attorney said Scott was driving a used Mercedes he had recently purchased from a neighbor and was on his way to buy parts for the car when Slager encountered him.
Scott, who served four years in the Coast Guard in the 1980s, had no arrests or convictions for violent offenses in recent years, Stewart said. He is survived by four sons, ages 16, 21, 22 and 24.
Queally reported from Los Angeles and Zucchino from Durham, N.C.
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