The vast majority of peace officers around the country do not see color. They see good and bad. Most of their predispositions are not based upon race, but upon those willing to victimize others and destabilize peace and harmony.
I do not want the police to engage in brutality any more than the next person. But I also understand from personal experience, that once the officer has legal authority to detain someone, he or she needs to demonstrate control. The absence of command presence will encourage a runner to run and a fighter to fight. Once someone is motivated to run from, or fight the cops, serious injuries occur and that is when people question the tactics used. Since most of our critics have never been in a foot pursuit, or a fight, the criticism is based on a lack of knowledge and understanding.
By now we’ve all seen the video of Officer Michael Slager using deadly force against Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. My initial impression was not favorable. “I’m glad I’m not in his shoes,” I thought privately.
Slager was arrested and quickly charged with murder. But was it? Will there be a successful prosecution of this law enforcement officer who used deadly force while performing his duty?
I’m certain we’ll hear much about the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, which allows officers to use reasonable force to gain submission and apprehension. Of prime importance the court cited, “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Because of this, ascertaining the state of mind of the officer at the moment he or she pulled the trigger is critical.
Discovering facts while outside the investigation is difficult, so judgment should be reserved. But if the information I’ve learned is accurate, the prosecution will have an uphill battle trying to secure a conviction for murder.
I believe I’m a reasonable law enforcement professional with three decades experience, so I did my best to figure out Slager’s state of mind to determine how “reasonableness” will be argued in his defense. This is what he encountered:
- Traffic stop for an infraction (brake light out).
- Scott presented a driver’s license but no registration or insurance.
- There was a report of a stolen vehicle that was broadcast over the police radio while Officer Slager was talking to Scott at the driver’s door. (Was that a factor?)
- Scott said he was trying to buy the car, but had not yet done so.
- Slager returned to his unit. Whatever investigation he was completing there will contribute to his state of mind.
- Scott began to exit his car, but Slager ordered him to remain seated. (From my perspective, this was a test to analyze his chance of escape. This could have escalated Slager’s awareness.)
- Once Scott fled from the vehicle, a reasonable officer may have considered the car was an unreported stolen based upon the preliminary investigation to that point, but it’s hard to discern by simply watching video.
- Officer Slager chased Scott. About 15 seconds into the foot pursuit Slager is heard shouting “Taser, Taser, Taser.” This is consistent with officer training prior to deploying one. (None of the foot pursuit was captured on video.)
- The chase lasted approximately 100 yards when a female witness saw the two fighting. (Was there a struggle for possession of the Taser?)
- Slager is heard ordering Scott to the ground on at least two occasions.
- After the first scuffle, Scott apparently broke free and the chase continued another 100 yards.
- Slager again ordered Scott to the ground.
- At 4:46 into this encounter, the citizen is able to capture the action on video that eventually went viral.
- Most first impressions involved a white police officer standing upright appearing to execute a fleeing black man.
- Slager broadcast, “… shots fired, subject is down.” “He grabbed my Taser.”
- How Scott grabbed and/or used the Taser is incredibly important as it relates to Slager’s “state of mind” and will probably be the primary factor related to “reasonableness.”
- Expert testimony from a psychologist will likely play a roll. I.e. what was Slager’s mental image when he fired? There are psychological explanations that may conflict with the video.
- If Scott controlled, aimed, or deployed Slager’s Taser on him, this will prove problematic for the prosecution as it dramatically increased the chance of great bodily injury (GBI) to Slager.
- Did Slager tamper with evidence as speculated? If so, that will play a role regarding his credibility. Or, is there another explanation for these alleged actions?
As you can see, it is not as clear-cut as the initial video made it out to be. There will be a slew of experts lined up for the prosecution and defense. But only one person knows his state of mind, and that is Slager himself. Will he take the stand? Time will tell.
Defining reasonable force is what causes these debates. If reporting were complete, there would be equal emphasis on a person’s responsibility to comply with an officer’s lawful commands. Sadly, that is rarely the case. While law enforcement always needs to justify its’ actions, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Eric Harris, and Walter Scott would be alive today had they not fled or resisted.
If more cops become defendants because the aggressive nature of a suspect led to his demise, fewer good men and women will pursue this noble career. If the public demands to remove force from the law enforcement toolbox, as has been frightfully suggested by some, terror will be the unintended consequence.
As haters continue to hate, and the uninformed question our actions, we need to respond and educate with professionalism and integrity. Remind the public that any use of force option, regardless of justification, is not pretty. We need to avoid predispositions and judgment as we focus on our lawful requirements.
Finally, I want to extend my gratitude to approximately 800,000 peace officers nationwide that respond to millions of calls for service everyday. You solve problems that go unnoticed and largely unappreciated. You are my heroes because you will always be in the Eye of the Storm!
Jim is the author of The Spirit behind Badge 145. He worked in military and civilian law enforcement for thirty-one years. While in the USAF he flew as a crewmember aboard the National Emergency Airborne Command Post—a presidential support detail. Following his military service, he served for twenty-seven years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California where he retired as a lieutenant. He holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the prestigious Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the IACP course, Leadership in Police Organizations. Jim is married and has three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at [email protected] or view his website badge145.com which is geared toward encouraging officers.