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Video of South Carolina police shooting inflames debate

North Charleston, South Carolina: The fatal shooting of a black man running from a white police officer inflamed the nation's debate over police use of force Wednesday, and the mayor and police chief of South
India TV News Desk April 09, 2015 8:47 IST
India TV News Desk

North Charleston, South Carolina: The fatal shooting of a black man running from a white police officer inflamed the nation's debate over police use of force Wednesday, and the mayor and police chief of South Carolina's third-largest city said they were "sickened" by what a bystander's video revealed.

The officer, who has been charged with murder, was fired, and the mayor said he ordered enough body cameras for every officer on the street. But that did little to quell the outrage of an angry crowd at North Charleston's City Hall, and the officials were shouted down by protesters calling for justice.

The shooting in North Charleston came amid an ongoing nationwide debate over issues of trust between law enforcement and minority communities.

The officer reported that he fired in self-defense after the suspect he pulled over Saturday for a broken brake light grabbed his stun gun. Police shared his version with the public and promised a full investigation.

But the officer's story quickly unraveled after a nervous bystander's shaky video was shared with the dead man's family and then the world.

It shows Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager firing repeatedly at Walter Lamer Scott as the unarmed 50-year-old tries to flee. The video begins with what appears to be a brief physical altercation over the officer's Taser, which falls to the ground shortly before the officer pulls out his Glock pistol and fires eight times. Scott then crumples to the ground about 30 feet (9 meters) away. Not once in the moments before or during the shooting can the officer be heard yelling "stop" or telling the man to surrender.

Moments later, the officer is seen walking back and picking up what appears to be the Taser, then returning to drop it at Scott's feet as another officer arrives to check the dying man's condition.

The video changed everything, authorities and advocates said Wednesday.

"What if there was no video? What if there was no witness, or `hero' as I call him, to come forward?" L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for the dead man's family, told The Associated Press. "We didn't know he existed. He came out the blue."

Slager was promptly abandoned by his attorney and charged with murder after the video was made public by the slain man's family Tuesday afternoon.

Mayor Keith Summey announced that the officer was immediately fired and that he's ordering 150 more body cameras, so that every uniformed officer on the street will wear one, a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement that is growing nationwide.

"I have watched the video. And I was sickened by what I saw. And I have not watched it since," Police Chief Eddie Driggers said.

The news conference was meant to quiet the uproar, but both the mayor and chief were interrupted by chants of "no justice, no peace" and others shouted questions they said they could not answer.

Outside City Hall, local organizer Muhiydin D'Baha repeatedly yelled, "Eight shots in the back!" through a bullhorn. The crowd yelled, "In the back!" in response, aiming to coin a new phrase to supplant the "hands up, don't shoot!" refrain that grew out of other officer-involved killings.

Scott's family and Stewart appealed to keep protests peaceful, saying the murder charge shows the system is working in this case so far.

But Stewart does plan to sue police, and said they acted decisively only because of the video, which was recorded by a whispering man who tried to avoid the officers' attention as he peered over a chain-link fence into the empty lot where Scott died.

That man, Feidin Santana, told NBC on Wednesday that he approached the scene because he noticed Slager controlling Scott on the ground and heard the sound of a Taser before Scott got loose and ran away.

"I remember the police had control of the situation," Santana said. "He had control of Scott. And Scott was trying just to get away from the Taser."

Local police turned over the investigation to state law enforcement. The video also prompted the FBI and the Justice Department's civil rights prosecutors to announce a federal probe Wednesday. At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the video is "awfully hard to watch" and said he wouldn't be surprised if President Barack Obama has seen it, "given the amount of media attention that this issue has received."

Slager appeared without a lawyer at his first court hearing Tuesday and was held without bond for murder, which could put him in prison for 30 years to life.

Police also said investigators are reviewing a police dash-cam video that may show the beginnings of the traffic stop, and they released radio dispatch traffic, including the sound of Slager breathing heavily as he chases Scott into the empty lot. A passenger in Scott's car also was detained, according to the police reports.

The video begins after both men have left their cars, and after Slager appears to hit Scott with a Taser. Scott pulls away, and the object falls to the ground, trailing wires. Slager then recovers the object and drops it near the body as a black officer approaches. Then, he picks it up again as the officers talk.

The black officer, Clarence Habersham, made no mention of Slager or any of his actions in his brief official report, according to a copy obtained by the AP.

Months or years have passed in many other police-involved shootings before accused officers are fired, and few face criminal charges. Nationwide protests intensified after grand juries declined to indict police in the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York.