Walter Scott's killing is unusual in several ways. It's unusual that a traffic stop ended in death. It's unusual—and decisive—that it was caught on film. And it's highly unusual that it has produced a murder charge against the officer.
But in other ways, the incident seems depressingly familiar. Scott was stopped for having a tail light out, the sort of minimal issue that advocates say is often used as a pretext to harass black citizens and to search for other violations. As The New York Times noted, the population of North Charleston, where Scott was shot, is 47 percent black and 37 percent white. (Michael Slager, the officer who shot Scott, is white—along with 80 percent of the city's police department, according to the most recent available figures.)
South Carolina requires police departments to track all traffic stops that don't end in a citation or an arrest, which produces a useful if incomplete picture of how many stops might be essentially pretextual. Of more than 22,000 stops in 2014 in North Charleston, 16,730 involved African Americans—almost 76 percent of stops, much higher than the city's black population. Most of those, some 10,600, involved black men, like Scott.
An encounter with the police is generally stressful. It's especially difficult when black citizens are wary of the police and feel unfairly targeted. African American residents of North Charleston have been complaining about mistreatment by police for years. The Charleston Post and Courier reported on complaints in 2010; the-then chief of police replied by arguing that the ends justified the means. "I am not going to apologize for the strategies we've employed in these areas," he said. "Those strategies are working and the violence is dropping dramatically." Two-thirds of stops that failed to produce a ticket or arrest involved black drivers. The following year, however, the chief insisted his department did not profile.