NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — The traffic stop starts like any other: an officer pulls over a motorist, walks up to the driver’s side window and asks for license and registration. What happened minutes later appears to take place without any obvious sign of provocation or conflict: The driver opens the door and runs, and the officer chases after him.
Video released Thursday from the dashboard of white North Charleston police Officer Michael Thomas Slager’s cruiser captures the very first moments he and black motorist Walter Scott meet, a strikingly benign encounter at its earliest stages. It changes within minutes as Scott takes off running and the officer runs after him.
The video captures the moments leading up to a fatal shooting that has sparked outrage as the latest example of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man. The shooting itself was captured by an eyewitness on his iPhone and provided the impetus for the officer to be charged with murder and fired.
But questions had remained how the traffic stop turned deadly. The dash cam video provides a more complete picture of the encounter.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina, said the dash cam video shows nothing that would indicate that such a routine traffic stop would escalate to a fatal shooting.
“It’s not entirely normal. Most people don’t run during traffic stops. But it is not overly threatening or anything that should take an officer aback,” Stoughton said.
The shooting took place on Saturday and the department and Slager’s lawyer said the officer fired in self-defense during a scuffle over his department-issued Taser. Within days, the eyewitness video surfaced and immediately changed perceptions of what happened, leading the department to charge Slager with murder and fire him from the force he’d worked on for five years.
The dash cam video shows Scott being pulled over in a used Mercedes-Benz he had purchased just days earlier. Police have said he was being stopped for a broken tail light. Slager is seen walking toward the driver’s side window and heard asking for Scott’s license and registration. Slager then returns to his cruiser. Next, the video shows Scott starting to get out of the car, his right hand raised above his head, then he quickly gets back into the car and closes the door.
Seconds later, he opens the door again and takes off running. Within a city block or two, out of the dashboard camera’s view, Slager catches up to him in an empty lot.
A bystander noticed the confrontation and pushed record on his cellphone, capturing video that has outraged the nation: it shows Scott running away again, and Slager firing eight shots at his back.
There is almost nothing in Slager’s police personnel file to suggest that his bosses considered him a rogue officer capable of murdering a man during a traffic stop. In the community he served, however, people say this reflects what’s wrong with policing today: Officers nearly always get the last word when citizens complain.
“We’ve had through the years numerous similar complaints, and they all seem to be taken lightly and dismissed without any obvious investigation,” the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Thursday.
The mostly black neighborhood where the shooting took place is far from unique, said Melvin Tucker, a former FBI agent and police chief in four southern cities who often testifies in police misconduct cases.
Nationwide, training that pushes pre-emptive action, military experience that creates a warzone mindset, and legal system favoring police in misconduct cases all lead to scenarios where officers see the people they serve as enemies, he said.
“It’s not just training. It’s not just unreasonable fear. It’s not just the warrior mentality. It’s not just court decisions that almost encourage the use of it. It is not just race,” Tucker said. “It is all of that.”
Both Slager, 33, and Scott, 55, were U.S. Coast Guard veterans. Slager had one complaint in his personnel file of excessive force that was ultimately dismissed. Scott had been jailed repeatedly for failing to pay child support. But neither man had a record of violence. Slager consistently earned positive reviews in his five years with the North Charleston Police.
Slager’s new attorney, Andy Savage, said Thursday that he’s conducting his own investigation, and that it’s “far too early for us to be saying what we think.”
The officer is being held without bond pending an Aug. 21 hearing on a charge of murder that could put him in prison for 30 years to life if convicted.
As a steady crowd left flowers, stuffed animals, notes and protest signs in the empty lot where Scott was shot, many said police in South Carolina’s third-largest city routinely dismiss complaints of petty brutality and harassment, even when eyewitnesses can attest to police misbehavior. The result, they say, is that officers are regarded with a mixture of distrust and fear.
Slager’s file includes a single excessive use-of-force complaint, from 2013: A man said Slager used his stun gun against him without reason. But Slager was exonerated and the case closed, even though witnesses told The Associated Press that investigators never followed up with them. Police say they are now looking at that case again amid questions by the man Tased and eyewitnesses who said authorities never questioned them about it.
“It’s almost impossible to get an agency to do an impartial internal affairs investigation. First of all the investigators doing it are co-workers of the person being investigated. Number two, there’s always the tendency on the part of the departments to believe the officers,” Tucker said.
Mario Givens, the man who accused Slager of excessive force in 2013, told the AP that Slager woke him before dawn by loudly banging on his front door, and saying “Come outside or I’ll Tase you!”
“I didn’t want that to happen to me, so I raised my arms over my head, and when I did, he Tased me in my stomach anyway,” Givens said. “They never told me how they reached the conclusion. Never. They never contacted anyone from that night. No one from the neighborhood.”