photographer, and the police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston,
South Carolina, feels like a major watershed in the on-going struggle between
cops and cameras. Like no other story, this one starkly shows the power of a
camera in the hands of a courageous citizen at the right place and the right
time. And the technology is getting more sophisticated, cheaper and smaller by
Due to an official prejudice for police narratives, the case was headed to become another murky police shooting of a black man masticated in the media and criminal justice system into a free pass for police violence. A brave citizen with a cell phone camera changed that instantly. At that point the local police chief and the mayor of North Charleston agonized in public, as South Carolina politicians rushed to the cameras to show their disgust. A video image of the shamed officer wearing striped prison garb and handcuffs was publicly released to exhibit his fate.
Walter Scott was shot to death over a broken taillight on his neighbor's used Mercedes he was reportedly about to purchase. We're learning from places like Ferguson, Missouri, and a report from Los Angeles, California, how minor traffic stops for African Americans too often lead to further, deepening arrest and jailing complications. It's the application of Rudy Giuliani's beloved "broken windows" policy to minor vehicular infractions. It's also called police harassment.
In such a petty, oppressive climate, Scott's ultimately fatal decision to flee a white officer who had stopped him for a busted taillight was understandable. As the procedure is constructed to play out, Officer Slager had likely stopped Scott for the taillight as a pretext to go through his computer to look for more serious and outstanding infractions. It's a "gotcha" moment. In the dash-cam video, as Officer Slager walks to the driver's side window of the Mercedes, he gives the taillight a gentle, loving tap. Whether Scott owed child support or whatever, it seems he felt further complications like jail were a likelihood. Like anyone, Scott had a life that meant other commitments that day. As you watch the dash-cam video of Scott waiting in his car, you can imagine a host of things going through his mind. He apparently called his mother during those seconds before he decided to bolt from the car, leaving his driver's license in the hands of Officer Slager.
Feidin Santana first showed his now famous video to Scott's family. Fearful of police retaliation, he waited to see if the police would come up with the truth. Once he realized the System was sticking with Officer Slager's bogus story, he released his video to the Scott family. He said Officer Slager had been in control of Scott the whole time, until Scott finally broke free and ran. The video so unambiguously destroyed the claim that Officer Slager was in fear for his life, the North Charleston Police Department and its Criminal Justice System immediately shifted into reverse. You could almost hear the gears grinding. A secret grand jury wasn't an option in this instance. Recognizing that Slager was now toast, he was immediately thrown to the dogs, fired and charged with murder.
There is a stark lesson embedded in this amazing turn of events. First off, it shows there's good cause to be skeptical of accounts of a shooting officer's fear-for-his-life and claims of self-defense. Santana's videotaping has tarnished that narrative significantly. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is right when he says the incident is "deeply troubling on many fronts." As Scott is bleeding out, Slager is shown on the video going to retrieve his Taser and dropping it by Scott's body as a black officer walks up, a man Reverend Al Sharpton wants charged for something, since he did nothing and apparently went along with the bogus story.
Before the Fox News crowd goes ballistic and I get accused of hating cops and calling for them to be shot in their patrol cars, it needs to be said, police officers are a necessary part of society and civilization in general. This is not an anti-cop rant. Most cops are hard-working, good men and women. The issue is how to ferret out the rotten apples and establish in our police departments a sense of community policing where citizens are not seen as the enemy -- especially citizens in poor and minority communities. The problem is exacerbated by a psychology of militarization rooted in things like the failed Drug War, the post-9/11 War On Terror and the linkages between these militaristic institutions and local police forces. This insidious mix contributes to an elitist, even narcissistic, esprit-de-corps in which cops see themselves as a beleaguered and unappreciated thin blue line and citizens as the enemy. A vast wasteland of hack TV imagery emphasizing guns and vengeance doesn't help. Why, for example, in the Cleveland community where an African American child was shot dead for playing with a toy gun is the police headquarters on the fringes of that community called an FOB, a Forward Operations Base, derivative of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Combine this psychology with police unions, which are a real anomaly of our times, and you have a tough nut to crack. Unions are everywhere being dis-empowered and destroyed. Why, then, is the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) one of the strongest blue collar unions in America? Does it have something to do with the fact most unions are seen as anathema to an individualistic society swearing allegiance to profits and a free market? So why does the FOP get a pass? Not only are cops given the benefit of the doubt in the criminal justice system in which they operate as front line troops, in the individualistic, capitalist free-market system in which growing economic inequality has become a national disgrace, their unions are allowed to thrive as labor collectives.
I'll leave it to the gentle reader to come to a conclusion.
Citizens and Surveillance
A recent New York Times story listed a series of apps coming on line to bolster the use of citizen cell phone cameras. These apps consider the stress and fear an individual is under when witnessing something like a police shooting unfold before his or her eyes. They make the operation easy: You hit an icon button that turns the camera on, and you hit the same button to turn it off; then the app does what's necessary to send the video to You Tube. So when the huge, adrenaline-juiced cop sees you, physically threatens you and illegally snatches your cell phone, the confiscation is moot.