Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Imagine photos of the police shooting of Michael Brown

          The photos of a passerby – reprinted on the front page of the New York Times last week – showed police officer Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man running away after the cop pulled him over for a traffic violation.  Many Americans have been shocked by this, the coldest of many police murders.  Unusually – the photos are clear evidence - officer Slager has been charged with first degree murder.
         What is the difference, however, between this case and that of Michael Brown?  That there is clear photograph evidence of Slager, shooting down a man running away and moving a taser by the body.  So the testimony of a police officer cannot offset a likely inference from this evidence.
     Note that Brown supposedly attacked the officer in Ferguson in his car and wrestled with him for a gun - the policeman's word - rather than that a furious officer swung his car near Brown and a friend, grabbed at Brown, wrestled in the window, and then shot him repeatedly as he ran off.  Brown would be the first unarmed individual ever to thrust his way into a police car to wrestle with an armed officer.  But no photos...

     After the first shot, there is no controversy that Brown was moving away when the fatal shots were fired.
       Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was playing in a park in Cleveland with a toy gun.  He was shot and killed by a police officer, his sister barred from holding him as he was dying. No one was charged…
     Eric Garner was choked to death on a Staten Island street.  The stranglers walked…
      5  blacks and Chicanos have been wounded or gunned down in Denver, Jessica Hernandez unarmed but driving a stolen car with 5 others in it. No police officer has  been charged or fired…See here.
      Police who are unwatched, as officer Slager thought he was, often feel free to use deadly force against unarmed, nonwhite people.  This poisonous attitude is not just confined to rogue cops as the recent New York City police demonstrations against Mayor de Blasio show, although there are professional and decent officers including the police chief in North Charleston.
     Worse yet, much of "law" is customary.  Because they are often in dangerous situations and officers of the law, police have arbitrary leeway to use guns lethally and not be arrested or tried.  These "customs" - the opposite of the rule of law  - sanction rampant, uncounted police murders.
    The difference in the Walter Scott case is only the pictures.
      In the Charles Blow column below, FBI director James B. Comey lamented in February the absence of statistics, police department by department. COMMENT

     “How can we address concerns about ‘use of force,’ how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.”
   Note that the FBI has statistics and pictures of movement on "suspected terrorists" and other felons.  And police have been known to collect statistics.  See here.

    But the  policing of non-white people, often brutal, and meant to be intimidating, has been a long tacitly elite approved "public" policy.  The unfolding of capitalism has stripped black and chicano youth of employment opportunities; schools warehouse and abuse more than they educate; one can join a gang or go to war (despite the integration of the army below the level of sergeant, this possibility is, for poor blacks, receding...).  Most young blacks are consigned to what Marx named the reserve army of the unemployed - it would take serious Keynsian policies, for instance, to fight climate change (the stimulus repeated and strengthened) and repair bridges, to provide hope for many.  Note that poor whites also have a direct interest in these policies and that all of us, except the oil companies and the Republican rich have an interest in preserving a livable environment, that is, literally not making the planet uninhabitable for our species in this century...
      Protest about these killings in Ferguson and around the country - Black Lives Matter!  and Freedom Riders to Ferguson from Denver and other cities - has meant that at last powerful people (Holder, Obama, Comey) are now calling for at least counting police murders and for altering racist police practices of making money by arresting, fining and rearresting poor people (the recent Justice Department report on Ferguson; the front page story in the Times this morning about Kenneth Seay, a black Tennessean who has lost three jobs because of unpaid fines: "Drivers License Suspensions Create Cycle of Debt" here ).
      Some relevant statistics are already or recently available: a review of the Philadelphia police discovered one police killing of a nonwhite every week for the last 8 years. See here and here.  A reason for officials  implementing racist oppression to scorn of law and not keep statistics: how many of these killings – 20%, 50%? - are anything but murder?
     Where Britain and Japan had 0 killings by cops, the US had 459 last year.  See here.  That officers feel they have permission to shoot to kill (and are often not well trained/competent to deal with "threats") stands out.
     Thus, use of body cameras by the police - something often hard for an officer to do, something that needs to work well - is crucial. 

      So is the ability of passersby to record police shootings as with the murder of Walter Brown in Florida. At a meeting I attended yesterday, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a bill calling for this, authored by Representative Joseph Salazar of Thornton.
     Worse yet, as Charles Blow recounts below, many whites are quick to invent excuses even for Slager's photographed act of murder.  Blow went on weekend tv shows to oppose wanton police killed (while praising professional police conduct) and discovered that the character of Walter Scott, the murdered man, was being indicted, not for any crime on the scene, by commentators to let the killer skate.

    Once again, whites are also hurt by racism.  Poor whites are disproportionately jailed.  White people form the majority of the US’s 2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world ‘s prisoners (see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: a Political-Economic Analysis)...

   And yet Blow cites statistics that many whites believe the police "uphold the law," particularly toward nonwhite people (these are from a 2013 Gallup poll; both confidence among blacks and I suspect, whites - higher initially - as well has probably declined this past year).   
    He adds rightly that wanton police killing is a simple moral issue.  A decent society - as opposed to an authoritarian police state - does not allow this.  See my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1.  Murder is not some sort of partisan issue.  In fact, conservatives and libertarians might well, racism aside, be in the forefront of opposing such murders, as, for example, Andrew Sullivan and Scott Horton were, more fiercely than liberals, about torture
    Surrounded by this cocoon of racist opinion, the “freedom” of police to kill arbitrarily and without consequence is dangerous for democracy and the rule of law.  The police chief and Mayor Keith Summey of North Charleston have spoken out against  officer Slager’s – in telling photographs -  crime.  But blacks are still disproportionally disenfranchised (a campaign in the states dominated by “Republicans”), unemployed, sent to prison, and shot in the back repeatedly by police officers.
     In America today, only broad support for movements like Black Lives Matter!, including among white people, will protect the most basic rights - to be stopped for a traffic violation without being murdered - let alone uphold the right to vote. the core right in a democracy, or initiate a genuine democracy from below in this country. 
The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST
Walter Scott Is Not on Trial
APRIL 13, 2015

I not only watched television pundits discuss the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., last week, I participated in some of those discussions.

And the most disturbing thread that emerged for me was people who said up front that they saw no justification for Scott being killed, but nevertheless stalked around for a back door that would allow them to surreptitiously blame the victim for his own death. Some formulation of “if only he hadn’t run...” was the way this dark door was eased open.

I find it particularly disturbing the way that we try to find excuses for killings, the way that we seek to deprecate a person when they have been killed rather than insisting that they deserved to remain among the living.

For me, there is only one issue in the Walter Scott case: he is dead, and that cannot be undone. And not only was he killed, but he was killed in a most dishonorable way: shot in the back as he fled. So, for me there is only one question: Should the dead man be dead? Is there anything, under American jurisprudence and universal moral law, that justifies the taking of this man’s life?


All else wanders into the weeds. The judicial system could have easily dealt with any misdeed Scott is accused of — failure to pay child support, failure to present proper documentation for a car he was driving, resisting arrest, fleeing — and none of those offenses, if he were found guilty of any or all, would have carried the death sentence.

Unfortunately, police officers encounter lawbreakers on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, some resist arrest. Some flee. These are simply occupational conditions of being an officer — an admittedly tough job that few of us would sign up to do. But none of those offenses grant a license to gun a man down.

A life is the most precious, most valuable thing in creation. It cannot be casually ended. It cannot be callously taken. It must always be honored and protected, and the person living it needn’t be perfect; he or she is human.

The bar of justification for extrajudicial killings is high, and necessarily so, even among suspects accused of crimes. Killing sanctioned by courts in the form of executions are problematic enough, as evidenced by recent exonerations of men who spent decades on death row. How much more problematic could killings be of people who don’t live to get a trial?

It is tragic to somehow try to falsely equate what appear to be bad decisions made by Scott and those made by the officer who killed him. There is no moral equivalency between running and killing, and anyone who argues this obdurate absurdity reveals a deficiency in their own humanity. Death is not the appropriate punishment for disobedience. Being entrusted with power does not shield imprudent use of power. And one of the saddest and most frustrating features of our current debate about police use of force, in communities of color in particular, is the degree to which justice itself has been absorbed into the ideological struggle in this country.

Social justice, equal treatment and violence exerted by structures of power against a vulnerable population shouldn’t become a sprocket in our political machines. This is about right and wrong, not right and left.

Neither should we have such widely differing racial perceptions about whether use of force is appropriate and to what degree. For instance, as The Associated Press reported last week: “Seven of 
10 whites polled, or 70 percent, said they can imagine a situation in which they would approve of a police officer striking a man. Most blacks and Hispanics did not agree.”

The article continued: “The poll results don’t surprise experts on American attitudes toward police, who say experiences and history with law enforcement shape opinions about the use of violence by officers.”

Furthermore, we as a nation simply must do a better job of collecting data about these kinds of cases so that we can all discuss them from a point of mutually accepted fact rather that as an outgrowth of tribal narratives.

As the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, lamented in February

“How can we address concerns about ‘use of force,’ how can we address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not have a reliable grasp on the demographics and circumstances of those incidents? We simply must improve the way we collect and analyze data to see the true nature of what’s happening in all of our communities.”

There will be an investigation and a trial in this case. Evidence will be examined and presented. It is proper to wait for that. But any exculpatory evidence must justify this use of force, not simply seek to excuse it. That will most likely be a high bar.

The video that has now been made public is incredibly disturbing and may prove incontrovertible. We will wait and see. But it is important to remember that waiting is a luxury of time afforded to the living. Time has ceased for Mr. Scott.


New York Times

South Carolina Officer Is Charged With Murder of Walter Scott

In video provided to The New York Times, a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., is seen shooting an apparently unarmed man after a scuffle following a traffic stop.
 Publish DateApril 7, 2015. 

The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because th eman had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.

WASHINGTON — A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.

 The shooting came on the heels of high-profile instances of police officers’ using lethal force in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The deaths have set off a national debate over whether the police are too quick to use force, particularly in cases involving black men.

A White House task force has recommended a host of changes to the nation’s police policies, and President Obama sent Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to cities around the country to try to improve police relations with minority neighborhoods.

Officer Michael T. Slager

North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.

“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Mayor Keith Summey said during the news conference. “And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
The shooting unfolded after Officer Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. Mr. Scott ran away, and Officer Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. He fired his Taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Mr. Scott, according to police reports.

Moments after the struggle, Officer Slager reported on his radio: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” according to police reports.

But the video, which was taken by a bystander and provided to The New York Times by the Scott family’s lawyer, presents a different account. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Officer Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Mr. Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Mr. Scott turns to run.


Reaction to Walter L. Scott Shooting
Reaction to Walter L. Scott Shooting
Family members of Walter L. Scott, a black man shot to death by a white South Carolina police officer, reacted after the mayor of North Charleston said the officer would be charged with murder.
 By Reuters on Publish DateApril 8, 2015. Photo by Reuters.

Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.

The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.

The Supreme Court has held that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the state’s criminal investigative body, has begun an inquiry into the shooting. The F.B.I. and the Justice Department, which has opened a string of civil rights investigations into police departments under Mr. Holder, is also investigating.

Officer Slager served in the Coast Guard before joining the force five years ago, his lawyer said. The police chief of North Charleston did not return repeated calls. Because police departments are not required to release data on how often officers use force, it was not immediately clear how often police shootings occurred in North Charleston, a working-class community adjacent to the tourist destination of Charleston.

For several minutes after the shooting, Walter L. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Mr. Scott had been arrested about 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support or show up for court hearings, according to The Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston. He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon, the newspaper reported. Mr. Scott’s brother, Anthony, said he believed Mr. Scott had fled from the police on Saturday because he owed child support.

“He has four children; he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record,” said Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family. “He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”

Mr. Stewart said the coroner had told him that Mr. Scott was struck five times — three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear — with at least one bullet entering his heart. It is not clear whether Mr. Scott died immediately. (The coroner’s office declined to make the report available to The Times.)

Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Mr. Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Mr. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Mr. Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer later arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but is also not seen performing CPR.
The debate over police use of force has been propelled in part by videos like the one in South Carolina. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque charged two police officers with murder for shooting a homeless man in a confrontation that was captured by an officer’s body camera. Federal prosecutors are investigating the death of Eric Garner, who died last year in Staten Island after a police officer put him in a chokehold, an episode that a bystander captured on video. A video taken in Cleveland shows the police shooting a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who was carrying a fake gun in a park. A White House policing panel recommended that police departments put more video cameras on their officers.

Mr. Scott’s brother said his mother had called him on Saturday, telling him that his brother had been shot by a Taser after a traffic stop. “You may need to go over there and see what’s going on,” he said his mother told him. When he arrived at the scene of the shooting, officers told him that his brother was dead, but he said they had no explanation for why. “This just doesn’t sound right,” he said in an interview. “How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?”

Anthony Scott said he last saw his brother three weeks ago at a family oyster roast. “We hadn’t hung out like that in such a long time,” Mr. Scott said. “He kept on saying over and over again how great it was.”

At the roast, Mr. Scott got to do two of the things he enjoyed most: tell jokes and dance. When one of Mr. Scott’s favorite songs was played, he got excited. “He jumped up and said, ‘That’s my song,’ and he danced like never before,” his brother said.

Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting from North Charleston, S.C. Kitty Bennett and Sarah Cohen contributed research.

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