We’ve all met people who believe they are never wrong. They offer up justifications, excuses, examples of others behaving similarly, but you never hear them accept or take any responsibility for their actions. In order to have any credibility at work, in relationships, and with loved ones, we must be able to acknowledge when we make mistakes. Secondary to that acknowledgement must be some sort of accountability. That’s how it works.
What kind of police advocate would I be if I just blindly and without fail endorsed any and all actions made by other police officers? I would be one without any credibility. I’ve said since the beginning that I would be there to acknowledge and advocate holding to account any officers whose actions rose to a criminal level, and now I’m doing that.
Today, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 19 to 24 years in prison after a judge found him guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed motorist.
Former Officer Slager shot an unarmed black man who was running away from him after being pulled over for a broken brake light. The shooting, as evidence showed, did not appear to be justified. The officer stated that Scott tried to grab the officer’s Taser during the incident, but video footage revealed that the Taser was on the ground when the officer fired eight times, with five hitting Scott in the back.
To those who believe that the justice system does not work, using the deadlocked jury from the officer’s first trial as evidence to support that theory, I argue to the contrary. We did see justice served in this case. After the mistrial, there was going to be a swift retrial. Since there was only one lone juror holdout in the first trial, indications were that another trial would have resulted in a guilty verdict. So instead, Slager pled guilty in a plea deal in federal court, which resulted in the dismissal of the state charges.
For those of you thinking this was a better consequence for the former officer, think again. Punishments are harsher in federal court than in state court. Federal sentences also tend to be lengthier than state sentences, even if the crimes are similar. In federal prison there is no parole. Prisoners serve on average more of their sentence time than they do in most states, including my home state of Colorado. I found a study at pewtrusts.org that showed Colorado prisoners from 2000-2009 served only 35% of their sentence compared to studies I found which put the average time served by federal prisoners at 85%.
I believe the fact that Slager was a police officer is the only reason this even ended up in a federal courtroom. This means his sentence was more severe than it would have been had he not been a police officer. This is accountability. I want the world to see that justice was done here, even though it took some time. The wheels of justice turn slowly—on purpose. The point is to get it right and our system does that in a super-majority of cases.
While I don’t believe officer Slager to be a racist nor do I believe he set out that day looking for an African-American to murder, I do believe, from what I know, his actions were not justified. I’m not sure what he was thinking that day and we might never know. What I do know is that his use of force was neither reasonable nor appropriate, and therefore his actions criminal. Now, he is being held accountable.
While Slager’s actions resulted in legitimate damage in the struggling relationship between law enforcement and the public, it’s important to remember that one person’s actions shouldn’t be indicative of an entire profession. Police officers are only human. As I discuss in my book, From Boy To Blue, when police officers screw up, they are held to account more severely than if John Q. Public had done the same. Because of the power and trust put into our police officers, it should remain this way.
The only way for law enforcement and the criminal justice system to even begin healing the wounds inflicted by the criminal actions of police officers, is by using our justice system to hold those responsible to account. Slager’s sentence is evidence this occurred.
Slager also took responsibility for his actions—an increasingly rare event to witness in today’s world. According to his plea agreement, Slager admitted using deadly force knowing it was “unnecessary and excessive and therefore unreasonable under the circumstances.” And while that doesn’t undo what happened, it shows this former officer in particular was willing to admit when he was wrong.
Steve Warneke is a retired sergeant, consultant, speaker, and author of From Boy To Blue. You can find podcasts and more from Steve at www.SteveWarneke.com.