What Will It Take to Convict a Police Officer for Shooting an Unarmed Man?

In two high-profile trials—those of Officers Michael Slager and Ray Tensing—juries declined to hold cops accountable for taking the lives of civilians.


How could the trial have ended in anything but a conviction?

On April 4, 2015, the 50-year-old black motorist was pulled over in North Charleston, South Carolina, to address a broken brake light—a matter that inanely requires citizens to submit to impromptu interactions with armed agents of the state, despite the risk roadside stops pose to the safety of motorists and police officers.

The motorist, Walter Scott, unlawfully fled on foot from his 1991 Mercedes. Then Officer Michael Slager, who executed the traffic stop, pursued him on foot, drew his weapon, and shot the unarmed man in the back as he ran away. A passerby captured what appeared to be a murder on his mobile phone camera, thought about erasing it for fear of his own safety, but decided to come forward after details of the video contradicted the police report that the officer in the case filed.

There were 1,146 people killed by American cops in 2015.

In every instance where video was made public I watched it. I read about many killings, too. I never encountered a cop who behaved more egregiously than Slager.

Nor was I alone in being horror-struck at his actions.

“Officials in North Charleston have sought to calm tensions; offered condolences to the victim’s family; made no attempt to publicly defend the officer; and said they handed the investigation over to the state, though they were not obligated to do so, to ensure an impartial and independent inquiry,” the New York Times reported.

“I have watched the video, and I was sickened by what I saw,” North Charleston’s police chief told reporters. Slager was fired, arrested, charged with murder, and held without bail. That almost never happens when cops shoot unarmed people.

But despite an unarmed victim, forensics proving he was shot multiple times in the back, a police officer who made a false report, and clear video showing the entire debacle, Slager was not convicted of murder or manslaughter in his trial this week. A lone juror spared him that fate with a refusal to convict. That triggered a mistrial.

Prosecutors say they will retry the case.

If there was a police killing last year that was comparably egregious, it was that committed by University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, who shot an unarmed motorist, Samuel DuBose, in the head during a traffic stop. That killing was also captured on video. Joe Deters, the prosecutor in the case, declared, “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make. People want to believe that Mr. DuBose had done something violent toward the officer; he did not. He did not at all. And I feel so sorry for his family and what they lost. And I feel sorry for the community, too.”

He added, “Purposeful killing of another, that’s what makes it murder. He purposefully killed him.” Video of the egregious killing was released to the public.

Last month that case ended in a mistrial, too.

My belief is that police officers should be treated like any other person accused of a crime. In the ongoing debate about policing, defenders of the status quo frequently point out, correctly, that patrolling America’s streets is a tremendously difficult job—one that puts all who perform it in frequent contact with dangerous criminals, risking injury or death while trying to protect public safety. Their view is that the risks involved, the difficult demands of the job, and the importance of the task to society mean cops should always be given the benefit of the doubt.

The inevitable, unspoken consequence of that view is that citizens who have interactions with cops, often Hispanic or black men, are presumed to be in the wrong.

To stack the deck against unarmed citizens who get shot is absurd.

Yet even operating under a standard in which police officers get the benefit of every reasonable doubt, it seems hard to understand why Slager and Tensing wouldn’t have been convicted of manslaughter. The fact that neither was convicted is the latest evidence that the system as it now exists does not reliably punish cops for even egregious killings.

The policy debate around policing has lately focused on the tactics and rhetoric of Black Lives Matter (while mostly ignoring its excellent Campaign Zero roadmap for policy reform). Whatever conservatives think of Black Lives Matter, it is long past time that more of them join with libertarians and liberals in an effort to address this problem: Armed agents of the state are killing American citizens at rates far higher than other developed countries, and even when videos show them killing unarmed individuals, some are somehow getting away with it.

Elie Mystal gets this much right: “Letting cops who murder black people go free has nothing to do with the black community.” The defense attorney Scott Greenfield adds:

People need to believe in cops. It’s an irrational belief, born of their own compulsion to make sense of the world, because if an otherwise ordinary police officer had a random killer hiding beneath his badge, there would be nothing to stand between our desire for safety and the insanity of random violence that could take our life, our children’s lives, for no reason at any moment. It would be like living in The Purge, and no one would ever be able to sleep at night if that was the case.

But as Elie says, the failure to convict in this case, with this evidence, rips our comfort blanket of civility from our clutches. Whether it’s because Walter Scott was black or Michael Slager was a cop isn’t clear. What is clear is that any result other than guilt in this case tell us the system is a failure and we are left to our own devices to survive.

In these two failed prosecutions of white police officers, the most proximate failures belonged to individual white jurors. The larger failure to hold police accountable in the United States, even in egregious cases, is a collective one, and any political movement that claims to revere individual liberty or the rights set down in the Constitution is lying to itself if it doesn’t expend effort to make things better.

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