When America watched South Carolina police officer Michael Slager shoot and kill Walter Scott, a fleeing and evidently harmless black man, in April 2015, it looked like a slam-dunk case of shameless police brutality. It had been about eight months since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and despite a national outcry at the way an unequal justice system treats people of color, every day seemed to bring with it a new recording of police savagery, some of them lethal. The video of Scott's death, captured on a bystander's cellphone, showed what prosecutors decided was cold-blooded murder: The 50-year-old was shot several times in the back while running away from Slager, who appeared emotionless and terrifying. By the time the footage went public, murder charges were already in the works, which at least dispensed with the depressing question of whether prosecutors would have the stomach to go after the people—cops—they need to make cases. (They usually don't.)
It didn't take long for the script to play out as it often does when people of color are subject to police brutality. Scott's history of petty crime (and specifically unpaid child support) surfaced in the media, and Slager claimed Scott had seized hold of a Taser and threatened him. Then the Obama administration's Justice Department joined the fray, filing federal civil rights charges against the cop. But Slager caught a huge break at his state murder trial this past December, where an mostly white jury could not agree he was guilty of murdering the man he had gunned down on video. For a moment, at least, Slager had a shot at completely dodging accountability. What's more, the country as a whole seemed to be turning against the idea that cops should be punished for wrongdoing, with Donald Trump—a man who once called for the execution of five black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping* a woman in New York—on his way to the White House.
But on Tuesday, over two years after Scott's death, Slager pleaded guilty to a federal crime: violating Scott's civil rights by using excessive and unreasonable deadly force. He now faces the prospect of decades in prison, a remarkable outcome in a country where black people are at least twice as likely to to be shot by cops as whites, and where plenty of killer cops dodge charges entirely. That Slager wasn't technically convicted of murder is disappointing; he copped a plea on a federal civil rights charge, apparently betting that route gave him the best shot at seeing the light of day again sometime this century. Still, Slager's crime was even more obvious and heinous than many of his fellow killer cops; this was a case that needed to be won. And despite all the awfulness of the past few months from the perspective of criminal justice reformers, who can't help but fear what the Trump administration has planned for the Justice Department, down he went. A win is a win.
"Cops who murder innocent and unarmed citizens don't have a get-out-of-jail free card in the new administration," Jeffrey Fagan, an expert on policing at Columbia Law School, wrote me after the plea deal was announced, evincing a whiff of residual faith in a system he—like plenty of other experts—knows is badly broken.
Local prosecutors and federal US attorneys still have enormous discretion in America, where "the criminal justice system" is really a series of dozens of state and local jurisdictions, each with its own strange rules and culture. In Alabama, for example, judges can overrule juries and impose the death penalty just because they feel like it, a bizarre quirk upheld by the Supreme Court this past January. And even when the feds fail to act, many states have their own statewide law enforcement investigative agencies, some more reliable than others, that at least offer the prospect of keeping the local police in line.
We can only hope one of those higher powers intervenes in the case of Jordan Edwards, a black 15-year-old who was shot in the head while riding a car after a house party where gunshots sounded in Texas just this past weekend. As the New York Times reported, Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber on Monday clarified that despite saying a day earlier that the car was moving in reverse in an "aggressive manner," it was actually moving forward—away from the cops—when an officer's rifle bullet killed the teenager.
"There were no weapons involved; there was no aggressive behavior; these were not suspects," Lee Merritt, a lawyer for the Edwards family, told the paper. "The lone motive they had for the murder was that the vehicle was being used as a weapon, and now that is no longer there."
Merritt offered Haber some credit for changing his story, but the officers on the scene were wearing body cameras, and police may have calculated that sooner or later, footage showing an unprovoked and indefensible—or at the very least deeply controversial—killing was going to see the light of day.
What we still don't know is whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the federal prosecutors under his direction will intervene in cases like these, as the feds occasionally—and really only haltingly—did under Barack Obama. Sessions's rhetoric has been nothing short of deflating, repeatedly suggesting that America isn't kind enough to its noble cops and that federal intervention is usually a terrible idea. On Tuesday, that rhetoric solidified into action, when the Justice Department declined to intervene in the case of Alton Sterling, the black man killed by cops who pinned him to the ground outside a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, convenience store last year. Like Slager, the officers in that case were caught in the act on video. Unlike the convicted killer, they don't seem to have very much to worry about.
Slager is almost certainly going to spend a long time in prison, and maybe the Dallas County DA or some other investigative agency in Texas will figure out why Edwards, a promising and popular teenage football player, is now dead. But it's increasingly clear that police who abuse their power, who prey on the vulnerable, or who target people of color have nothing, or close to nothing, to fear from the federal government.
In other words, killer cops may not have a get-out-of-jail-free card, but they sure as hell seem better off with Trump as president.
*Correction 01/31/18: A previous version of this story said the Central Park Five were wrongfully convicted of murder when in fact they were wrongfully convicted of rape and assault. We deeply regret the error.
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