Activists in South Carolina are making fresh demands for more citizen oversight of policing after the fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott on Saturday brought the city of North Charleston to the forefront of an ongoing national debate on police brutality and use of fatal force.
On Thursday evening, the Charleston chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprouted out of the months-long protests that sprouted this summer in Ferguson, Missouri, called for authorities to convene a citizen review board, promising continued demonstrations until the demands are met.
Since this summer, the Black Lives Matter movement has been active in cities like Ferguson, where a white officer shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown, to Staten Island, New York, where police choked local resident Eric Garner to death while attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes, and to Cleveland, where a cop shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was holding a toy gun.
The fresh calls for oversight are coming as new police dashcam video emerged showing Scott, a former Coast Guard officer and father of four, fleeing North Charleston officer Michael Slager, 33, during a routine traffic stop for a broken taillight around 9:30am Saturday. The footage shows Scott, dressed in a green t-shirt and black track pants, bolting from his Mercedes-Benz without any immediate sign of provocation.
What the latest video does not show is the moments Slager chased Scott to an empty grassy lot, where the pair wrestled briefly before the officer fired eight bullets at Scott's back as he ran away. That footage, which made national headlines this week, was captured by a passerby, who later sent the video to the family, which in turn released it to the media.
Backlash to the incident has been swift. On Wednesday afternoon, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced murder charges had been filed against Slager, who has been denied bail pending his next court date in August. The officer faces 30 years to life in prison if found guilty of Scott's murder.
The following day, at another press conference in City Hall chambers, Summey confirmed that Slager has been fired, but said the department would continue to pay the insurance policy for the officer's 8-month pregnant wife until the baby is born, saying it's the "humane thing to do." The mayor also announced that the department would soon be implementing a new bodycam program to increase police accountability.
The press conference was interrupted several times by protesters in the back of the chamber, including some members of the Black Lives Matter movement, who called for the resignations of the mayor and police chief, and shouted chants such as, "no justice no peace," and "the mayor's got to go."
Summey appealed to the community to maintain peace and order in the wake of the shooting, and although the turnouts to protests have been relatively small in comparison to the series of demonstrations that followed other civilian deaths at the hands of police, members of the Black Lives Matter movement told VICE News they are planning on continuing their campaign until the department is reformed and there is more representation of minority and ethnic communities on the force.
"Right now, our number one demand is the creation and implementation of a Citizen Review Board to authoritatively deal with police misconduct allegations and weigh in on methodology of police recruitment, training, deployment, advancement, and accountability," organizer Muhiyidin D'Baha told VICE News. "We are calling for the City Council to hold a special emergency meeting [today] to focus on the creation of the review board."
D'Baha estimated between 100-200 people turned up to a demonstration outside City Hall Wednesday, some of who made their way into chambers where the mayor and police chief held their press conference that afternoon.
Other community rights advocates have also joined in calls for justice for Scott while raising questions about the outcome of this case, had video evidence not been produced showing the officer killing a fleeing suspect.
"Mr. Scott's murder, and the disgraceful cover up that followed, is not the issue of just one violent officer, but it reflects an entire police department requiring the greatest reforms," Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org said in a statement. "Police brutalize residents and lie to cover up their actions every day — although it's rare to have such misconduct caught on camera."
"The Department of Justice and local officials must implement a complete overhaul of Charleston law enforcement, including the removal of Police Chief Eddie Driggers, the release of comprehensive data on police use of force, and the creation of an independent, civilian oversight," he added. "Body cameras are a piece but do not go far enough."
The cell phone video also raised questions about the veracity of original police reports and accounts of the incident, including that officers attempted to revive Scott. The footage shows no such attempts being made before paramedics arrive at the scene.
Following the shooting, Slager can also be seen in the video walking back to the scene of the scuffle and picking something up off the ground. The officer then returns to where Scott has fallen and drops an item on the grass near the man, the footage shows.
In a later statement from David Aylor, Slager's attorney at the time, the officer claimed he "felt threatened" and said that Scott tried to wrestle his Taser away from him during the struggle. On Tuesday, the day the murder charges were revealed, Aylortoldthe_Post and Courier_ that he is no longer representing Slager.
Separate investigations into the incident are being conducted by South Carolina's Law Enforcement Division and the FBI and Justice Department. The Justice Department has been responsible for investigating several civil rights suits against a raft of officers involved in the killings of unarmed black men in recent months.
Charleston County Sheriff's Maj. Eric Watson said that at the time of the traffic stop, Scott was wanted on a Family Court warrant for failing to pay child support. The only other charges brought against him was nearly 30 years ago in 1987, when he was arrested on assault and battery charge, Watson said.
North Charleston is representative of hundreds of city police departments across the country that are ethnically and racially underrepresented by the members of the community they serve. In North Charleston, South Carolina's third-largest city, African Americans represent nearly half of the population of roughly 104,000, but account for less than 20 percent of the department's officers, according to Justice Department statistics.
Slager, who is also a former Coast Guard officer and joined the police department five years ago, is part of the some 80 percent of white officers on the city's police force. The department had received two complaints against the officer in that time, including one alleging he shot a Taser at a man in September 2013 for no reason, the_Post and Courier_reported.
Activists say the underrepresentation of black and other ethnic groups on the force contributes to racial profiling and bias in policing, which is further supported by an uneven judicial system that routinely fails to prosecute officers for misconduct.
"In the past 5 years South Carolina police have fired their weapons at 209 people and not one officer has been convicted," Robinson said. "If it were not for this video, law enforcement would have covered up this murder. It's disgraceful."
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