SUMMERVILLE, SC - APRIL 11: Judy Scott sits in a vehicle after the funeral for her son Walter Scott, at the W.O.R.D. Ministries Christian Center, after he was fatally shot by a North Charleston police officer after fleeing a traffic stop in North Charleston on April 11, 2015 in Summerville, South Carolina. Mr. Scott was killed on April 4 by North Charleston police officer Michael T. Slager after a traffic stop. The officer now faces murder charges. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photo: Joe Raedle
Photo: Joe Raedle

Not another Ferguson: North Charleston straddles delicate line after shooting by police

Walter Scott laid to rest on a rainy Saturday in South Carolina

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — With motorcycle officers from the North Charleston police leading the way, Walter Scott was escorted to his grave on Saturday by the same police department that put him there.

The escort was a reminder that, although Scott’s death may have followed a depressing pattern — another unarmed black man killed by white police officers — what happened after his killing did not follow any sort of script.

“We didn’t want another Ferguson,” said Elder James Johnson of the Charleston branch of the civil rights organization National Action Network.

No one in North Charleston, it seems, wants another Ferguson.

In the days after North Charleston Patrolman Michael Slager shot Scott, 50, in the back five times as Scott tried to run away from him, protests have been constant but small and peaceful. In August, Ferguson, Mo., burst into flames after a white officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man.

In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson went to ground and police sought to heap suspicion on the man who was killed. They showed video of Mike Brown stealing cigars and roughing up a store worker not long before Brown was killed. But there was video in North Charleston, too. There, a bystander’s footage showed Slager’s almost casual slaughter of a man who seemed to pose no threat to him. Slager was fired from the force, arrested and charged with murder.

“When the video surfaced … the fear was gone. The doubt was gone,” said the Rev. Thomas Dixon. “We knew what happened, so there was no need to rise up. Now it is my prayer that it will stay calm.”

The calm has held for a week.

With rain falling on Saturday, a U.S. senator and two congressmen joined an overflow crowd at WORD Ministries Christian Church for Scott’s funeral. Members of Scott’s family held the service at the small church to keep it low-key and largely private.

Members of the city’s white power structure — specifically the mayor and the police chief — stayed away. Mayor Keith Summey told the Post and Courier that he wanted to give Scott’s family “the utmost respect and the respect that the gentleman who is deceased deserves.” Summey also said he will attend a memorial for Scott on Sunday at which the Rev. Al Sharpton will speak.

‘You a black kid in a black neighborhood’

Although much larger, North Charleston has distinct similarities with Ferguson, including the fact that black residents feel underrepresented in local politics and burdened by a mostly white police department that they say unjustly targets them.

“My kids have been slammed against the wall by police and handcuffed,” said Crystal Maxwell, who attended a City Hall rally Thursday night with her son and two daughters. “I’ve been through it. My husband and kids have been through it. I want to wake up to all six of my kids. This has to stop.”

Micah King, 30, said he has been pulled over by police several times on suspicion of having drugs. Police have never found drugs on him and he has never gotten a ticket.

“I can count on one hand how many times I have been stopped and not pulled out of the car,” King said. “I was visiting relatives recently – they live in the hood – and I was pulled over for a taillight. The officer told me, ‘You a black kid in a black neighborhood. We searching your vehicle.’ I get searched for a taillight violation.

“Things like that happen all the time. I have seen cops do crooked, underhanded things and nothing comes of it.”

‘They really want to control everything’

Some African-Americans in North Charleston said Slager had a reputation.

Restaurant owner James Randolph said Slager was among a group of officers who harass black businesses by sitting in parking lots to watch who comes and goes. Randolph said his Pete & Rita’s restaurant, open less than two years, has been raided several times and fined five times for zoning violations – once for people dancing.

“And it is just black businesses all over town,” Randolph said. “They would pass 100 restaurants to go to black places with good clientele. They really want to control everything in our community.”

In 2013, according to police complaints, Slager used a Taser on Mario Givens after he was pulled from his home and mistaken for a burglar.

“He pulled the Taser out and I threw my hands up,” Givens said. “He still tased me.”

Givens filed a complaint with internal affairs, but Slager was exonerated. With Scott’s death, Givens has come forward again with his story, blaming the shooting on a nonresponsive police department.

“He probably would be alive,” Givens said Thursday. “If they investigated it (Slager) wouldn’t have been in the field.”

‘I am not surprised by what I saw’

Within hours of the news of Scott’s shooting April 4 – even before the video of the shooting surfaced — the region’s black leadership had mobilized.

As the crime scene tape was being placed, police officials had given them access to the scene for an emergency briefing.

“Then we called a press conference to ask people to remain calm. We knew if leaders didn’t say something quick, this thing could have escalated,” said Johnson of National Action Network.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn represents South Carolina’s 6th congressional district, home of Walter Scott.

Clyburn, who attended the funeral on Saturday, said his district didn’t turn into another Ferguson because of local leadership.

“The situation was handled differently. Mayor Summey stepped up and handled it appropriately,” Clyburn said. “And because he stepped up, the family was confident that justice would be served. I am not surprised by what I saw in the video. And I am not surprised at how the mayor of North Charleston handled it.”

Chris Stewart, the Atlanta lawyer representing the family, said that was the family’s take as well.

“I am angry, but you don’t see it in my actions,” Stewart said. “Right now, we have a positive relationship with the people investigating this case. We’ve tried [the Ferguson] route. It does not do anything.”

‘Some people are not ready for change’

Local residents have varying theories for why their community hasn’t exploded.

“It’s tourist season,” said protester Clara Benson. “They not gonna do anything to jeopardize that money and have the media cast a worse light on the city.”

This week, with a tennis tournament and spring break, nearly every hotel room in the city was booked.

“That is why they haven’t done anything drastic,” Benson said. “But our police department also took action quick. In Ferguson, they didn’t do anything to appease the people.”

Christopher Cason, a community organizer known as “Papa Smurf,” said he has been concerned by the level of protests, which have not only been quiet but relatively small.

“Where are the people?” Cason said. “A lot of people still have that slave mentality. Some people are not ready for change. You call it calm, but I call it passive.”

‘The family is going through a lot’

On Thursday, Kevin Capers sat on a picnic table in his front yard counting the news trucks gathered at Rodney Scott’s house nearby. Rodney is Walter Scott’s brother.

Capers said he had known Walter for years.

“Watching that video was horrendous, but I was not surprised,” he said. “I just hope that if anything comes out of this, it will be that police officers will get body cameras so they can get their stuff together and we can expose them.”

A man rode over on his bike to join Capers. As did Brandon Robinson, a local firefighter who grew up in Gwinnett County. As a public servant, Robinson tried to be circumspect.

“I work with the police a lot and there are a lot of good cops,” he said. “This is just a bad deal and Slager made the wrong decision.”

Capers asks a passing reporter whether Rodney Scott was at his house. The reporter tells him that hours earlier, Rodney Scott, a diabetic, had passed out – while doing a television interview – and was in the hospital.

“Lord,” Capers said. “That family is going through a lot right now.”

The second video: ‘Taser. Taser. Taser.’

On that same day, a second video, from Patrolman Slager’s dash cam, was released.

In it, filmed at 9:32 a.m., Slager is shown pulling over Scott’s 1990 Mercedes because one of the brake lights was not working — making the stop, according to legal experts, justified. Scott tells Slager that he doesn’t have paperwork for the car, which he said he was in the process of buying.

The video also shows Scott trying to get out of his car, before Slager orders him back in. A few seconds later, Scott gets out and starts running. A passenger, who hasn’t been identified, was also in the car.

Slager gives chase shouting, “Taser. Taser. Taser.”

That is where the first video, shot by bystander Feidin Santana, picks up. It shows Scott, who had already been tased, running from Slager along a stretch of grass.

Slager then fires eight shots from his service weapon. Five hit Scott, who collapses on the grass. Slager had said that during a struggle, Scott tried to take his Taser before running. He told investigators he feared for his safety. None of that was shown on either of the tapes.

Santana’s video directly led to Slager’s arrest, and the former officer now faces life in prison or the death penalty.

Scott was facing a bench warrant

It is unclear why Scott ran. At the time of the stop, he had a bench warrant out for his arrest for not paying more than $18,000 in back child support. State Rep. Justin Bamberg, who is also representing the Scott family as an attorney, said he believes Scott ran because “he did not want to go back to jail and lose his job.”

“The only situation where lethal force is justified is when (the officer) is in fear of harm or death,” Bamberg said. “None of that is present based on that video.”

In South Carolina, according to The State newspaper, 209 people have been shot across the state by police officers over the last five years. Of those who have been shot, 79 have died and only three officers have ever been charged with a crime. None of them was ever convicted.

All of which makes Slager’s quick charges rare. Still people are cautious, calling the arrest the exception rather than the rule.

“I am not impressed, when you have that kind of information they should have arrested him quick,” said Edward Bryant III, head of the North Charleston Branch of the NAACP. “I will be impressed when the verdict comes back.”

‘It is easy to throw out the race card’

Bamberg is trying to tamp down any racial rhetoric surfacing from the reaction.

“This case is not about race,” said Bamberg, who is black and represents the county that bears his family name. “This is about the value of human life and a police officer who made a terrible decision. This transcends all color lines. When things like this happen, it is easy to throw out the race card.”

But it is hard for protesters and longtime North Charleston residents not to play the hand they have been dealt.

According to a 2012 story by the Post and Courier, North Charleston’s relationship with police began to change after a 2006 FBI report listed the city as one of the most dangerous places in the country. Following the report, the police department increased the frequency and severity of patrols, particularly with traffic stops.

But as the murder and crime rate dropped, written complaints have risen. According to the paper, 69 percent of the written complaints that mentioned race were filed by blacks complaining about white police officers.

“The relationship is very bad. I have been fighting the North Charleston Police Department for 20 years,” said activist James Johnson. “Most of the people who come through court are black. That tells you they target poor people. This police department is oppressive.”

“In terms of the area, the citizens’ relationship with North Charleston police varies,” Bamberg said. “Some people have good experiences, some have horrible experiences. This department has a history of excessive force. Steps have been taken, but this is not an isolated incident.”

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