by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott of South Carolina was stopped by a North Charleston police officer for a burned out blinker on his car. It was Saturday morning. Scott had no prior criminal history and was unarmed. At some point Scott exited his vehicle and according to the police officer Scott reached for the officer’s Taser. The officer drew his weapon and fired multiple shots, killing Walter Scott. The officer said he feared for his life and was justified in using deadly force.
That’s the way things stood until three days later when a video tape by an anonymous witness surfaced at the New York Times and other media outlets. The video clearly shows Scott running away and the officer calmly taking aim and firing multiple shots into Scott’s back. The officer then handcuffed Scott, ran back to where the office had fired his gun, picked up an object and then dropped it beside Scott’s body. The video was turned over to investigators and Officer Michael Thomas Slager was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting death of Walter Scott. Michael Slager is white. Walter Scott is black. This is a nightmare story that is all too common.
Between May 1, 2013 and April 4th, 2015 there were 2,178 citizens killed by police officers in the United States according to an extensive search of public news accounts. These media accounts include police homicides, justified or otherwise, murder/suicides involving police officers and their family, DWI accidents involving officers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, police assisted suicides of mentally ill persons and other such catagories. A more detailed analysis of this database
is pending and will be published here when completed. But there are a few quick facts off the top that you should know.
In 23 months news accounts reported 2,178 civilian fatality incidents at the hands of the police. That means there are about 94 per month or around 3 police homicides per day. Fatalities are almost entirely men, 2,044, with only 135 woman killed and 6 whose gender was undisclosed.
The identities of 565 victims were undisclosed to the media. The average age of the known fatality victims is 36.9 years. Latino’s make up 18.7% of the general population and were 17% of the fatality victims during the past 23 months. Whites make up 77% of the population but only 48.1% of the victims. African-Americans make up just 13.2% of the general population but 492 of the victims of police related fatalities, or 30.5% of the total. If there is a perception in the Black community that they are disproportionally targeted by police, these facts only confirm their fears.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers are good, law abiding men and woman who put themselves on the line to protect us. So, it may seem impossible that any officers could wantonly direct deadly force towards otherwise law abiding citizens of color without legal justification. The Scott video is graphic evidence that it does happen. You can see for yourself here, but a warning: video is disturbing.
A full and fair discussion of racism, the law and the American Justice system is overdue. The urgency is now. People are dying.