S.C. Shooting: Isolated Incident Or Symptom Of Bigger Problems?

Apr 10, 2015
Originally published on April 10, 2015 3:12 pm
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People in South Carolina face the same question as they did in Ferguson, Mo. It's whether a police shooting points toward a larger problem. In Ferguson, investigators concluded that a police officer did not deserve to face trial for last year's shooting of Michael Brown. Yet, the Justice Department did find widespread problems in the way a mostly white police force related to the black community. In North Charleston, S. C., there are now two videos of a traffic stop that led to the shooting death of an unarmed black man. And the officer is charged with murder. One question is whether to think of this as an isolated incident. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The grassy lot where Officer Slager shot Walter Scott is private property. There's a brand-new sign on the fence making that point. But the pile of flowers keeps growing, and cars keep driving by slowly. Larry lives nearby. But he doesn't want to give his last name because, well, he's afraid of the cops.

LARRY: The North Charleston police are very aggressive. They pull up behind you. They stop you and check everything. They're just a very aggressive law enforcement.

KASTE: That's their reputation throughout the metro area. They're tough. The question is, are they tough in a way that drives down crime or in a way that leads to abuse? Peter Hospedal thinks it's both. He says people shouldn't forget the fact that just a few years ago, this city was one of the most dangerous in the country - but not as much now.

PETER HOSPEDAL: You don't hear about North Charleston like you used to, about crime and stuff like that. Now they talk about shopping is too crowded and traffic jams.

KASTE: He credits aggressive policing. But he readily admits that that change has come at a price.

HOSPEDAL: You just have to accept the problem with the crackdown, you know. Some time you get stopped, and you don't like it. It might be wrong.

KASTE: Hospedal says Walter Scott's death shows that things may have gone too far and that it may be time to retrain the whole police force. But others here make the bad apple argument. Teddie Pryor Sr. is a member of the Charleston County Council.

TEDDIE PRYOR, SR.: In everything, you have bad apples. This is just one bad apple at this time that - you know, that's cast a very negative situation on all police officers.

KASTE: When you have a bad apple, you eliminate it, he says. And he praises the mayor for firing Officer Slager soon after the shooting video came out. But Slager wasn't fired in 2013. That's when he was accused of abuse by a black man named Mario Givens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIO GIVENS: He never said nothing. He didn't even announce he was a police. He just beated on the door.

KASTE: This is Givens talking to reporters yesterday about the time when he was tasered by Officer Slager. Givens says it was for no reason. But when he complained about it, nothing happened to Slager. And he thinks that eventually led to Walter Scott's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIVENS: If they had even tried to listen to me and really investigate it, that man would have probably been alive 'cause he wouldn't have been an officer in the field.

KASTE: But the new dash cam video released yesterday doesn't support the notion that North Charleston cops are too aggressive and that Officer Slager in particular was abusive. The audio is hard to understand. But Slager can be seen talking calmly to Scott, asking him for his insurance and registration.

(SOUNDBITE OF DASH CAM VIDEO)

MICHAEL SLAGER: You don't have any paperwork in the glove box?

WALTER SCOTT: No, Sir.

SLAGER: No registration in there, no insurance?

SCOTT: No, he has all that stuff.

KASTE: And the chase starts only when Scott suddenly bolts from his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF DASH CAM VIDEO)

SLAGER: (Yelling) Taser, Taser, Taser.

KASTE: So bad apple or bad system? James Johnson is a longtime civil rights activist and head of the local chapter of Al Sharpton's National Action Network. He says the only way to answer that question is to let civilians review complaints against the police.

JAMES JOHNSON: We've been calling for that for the last 10 years now.

KASTE: Civilian review boards have become increasingly common around the country. But they're practically nonexistent in South Carolina. Johnson says it's been a non-starter in North Charleston.

JOHNSON: They put a community panel together to deal with the crime. But a surveying board to police the policemen, they wouldn't do that. But I can guarantee you now they will.

KASTE: Last night, young activists with the new civil rights group Black Lives Matter appeared at North Charleston's City Council meeting and told the mayor that he had 24 hours to start the process of setting up a civilian review panel. He didn't respond. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.