2 police killings, 2 outcomes: Lessons learned from Ferguson to South Carolina
CHARLESTON, S.C. — In both cases, a white police officer kills an unarmed black man. But the outcomes so far have been wildly different.
So what’s changed between the shooting deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina?
Here are some of the stark differences in the cases, the lessons learned by both police and the public and concrete changes that could help mend tensions in the future.
Ferguson: There was no bystander video of Brown’s death — no concrete evidence to support witness claims that Brown had his hands up to surrender.
North Charleston: It’s unlikely North Charleston police Officer Michael Slager would have been fired and charged with murder so quickly if not for video shot by witness Feidin Santana.
Even North Charleston’s police chief said he was disgusted by the footage of Scott’s shooting.
“I watched the video, and I was sickened by what I saw,” Chief Eddie Driggers said. “I have not watched it since.”
Not only does the video show Slager firing eight shots at Scott as he is running away, it also shows Slager picking up a dark-colored object that had fallen to the ground and later placing a dark object next to Slager’s lifeless body.
That could be significant because Slager initially said Scott had taken his Taser stun gun and feared for his life. But if investigators determine the object dropped next to Scott’s body was actually the Taser, Slager could be accused of planting evidence.
The takeaway: Ferguson resident Alexis Templeton said what happened in her city helped people across the country to feel empowered to stand up for themselves. And that includes having the courage to film police in tense situations.
“Now people have phones,” she said. “People aren’t scared to hold police accountable.”
The video of the North Charleston shooting, she said, is vital.
“If there is no video, folks don’t believe it because it sounds so asinine that something like this would ever happen in this country,” she said. “But with a video, you can’t say it’s not happening.”
Violence to peace
Ferguson: The largely peaceful protests in Ferguson were marred by looting, arson and even shootings. Violence erupted in November after the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, wasn’t indicted.
And even after Ferguson’s police chief resigned last month, two officers were shot during a protest at the Ferguson Police Department.
North Charleston: But after Scott was killed in South Carolina over the weekend, protests in North Charleston have been peaceful.
The difference could be that while Wilson was never charged, Slager has been arrested, charged with murder and fired.
The takeaway: Many Ferguson residents say what happened in their city is playing a role in the way North Charleston was handling its own tragedy.
Lee Smith, who recently made an unsuccessful bid for a Ferguson City Council seat, said he was glad to see authorities in South Carolina acknowledge Scott’s killing and charge Slager with murder.
“I am hopeful that their motives are right and not just based on the fact that they are trying to avoid the same types of issues that came down in Ferguson,” Smith said, referring to the months of unrest and violence.
The city’s response
Ferguson: It took Ferguson police six days to identify Wilson as the officer who shot Brown. And in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, then-police chief Thomas Jackson decided not to visit Brown’s family.
North Charleston: Slager was identified by authorities and charged with murder on Tuesday, two days after Santana shared his video with Scott’s family.
Mayor Keith Summey denounced the shooting and said Slager made a “bad decision.”
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” he said. “And if you make a bad decision — don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street — you have to live by that decision.”
Both Summey and the police chief visited Scott’s family.
The takeaway: Former Ferguson mayor Brian Fletcher said the city has influenced others.
“I think these situations are given much more scrutiny now,” said Fletcher, who won a seat on Ferguson’s city council this week.
“They have seen what has happened here in Ferguson. Every mayor and city council is very cautious in what they say and what they do.”
Ferguson: After Brown’s death last August, many asked why Wilson didn’t have a body camera. The shooting spurred a nationwide debate over whether all officers should wear cameras on their lapels.
Three months later, President Barack Obama pledged $263 million to procure body cameras and training for up to 50,000 police officers.
North Charleston: Slager also was not wearing a body camera when he killed Scott. But after the shooting, the mayor said the city was ordering an additional 150 body cameras “so every officer on the street” in the city will have one. That’s in addition to 101 body cameras already ordered, Summey said.
The takeaway: Not everyone agrees that all officers should wear body cameras. Some police unions have scoffed at the idea, and the American Civil Liberties Union has cited privacy concerns.
They’re also expensive. Several camera models cost at least $500 each, and storing all that footage can cost as much as $20,000 a year.
But National Urban League President Marc Morial said more body cameras will help protect not just the public, but also police.
“I think if officers know that their actions are being recorded on a consistent basis, it’s going to protect good officers who do the right thing,” Morial said. “But it’s also going to ferret out, if you will, bad actions by bad officers.”