NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina— New evidence may shed light on why Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot and killed here by a police officer last weekend, ran from the officer during a routine traffic stop shortly before the fatal encounter.
Documents from the Charleston courthouse show that Scott, a father of four, owed more than $18,000 in back child support and had an active bench warrant out for his arrest.
The documents obtained Friday by NBC News show Scott last paid child support in July 2012. A warrant for his arrest was issued in 2013.
Scott has been arrested a number of times before, including once for battery nearly 30 years ago, a DUI in 2008 and twice for what appeared to be child support issues handled through Family Court, according to the documents. Scott’s family has said he may have feared another arrest when he got pulled over.
Dashcam video released by the State Law Enforcement Division on Thursday shows former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager pulling Scott and a passenger over in the parking lot of an auto parts store. Slager is seen taking Scott’s license and walking back to his police car, and moments later Wilson is seen running away. Slager gives chase.
The dashcam video doesn’t capture what happened next. The chase turns into a confrontation several hundred yards away in a fenced-in, grassy lot, where Slager first shoots Scott with a Taser and then shoots him in the back multiple times as Scott tried to run away.
Slager initially told officials that Scott wrestled away his Taser and that he fired on the man because he feared for his life. But a witness’s cell phone video, which captures the horrific last moments of Scott’s life, contradicts Slager’s assertions.
Slager has since been charged with murder, jailed and terminated from the force. In near unanimity, city, state and federal officials have condemned the killing as tragic and “sickening.”
Yet while the swiftness in which local authorities have responded to this case has been exceptional and may have mitigated much of the ongoing outcry from local residents and activists, many questions still remain.
Did Slager and other responding officers do anything to save Scott’s life as he lay dying, as they claim? Who was the yet-to-be identified passenger in Scott’s car and what insight might that person have into those harried moments before Scott bolted from the car?
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Slager’s defense team headed by high-powered Charleston attorney Andrew Savage, released a statement on Friday in which it said law-enforcement has not been cooperative with them.
“Unfortunately, despite having made requests, [Savage] has not yet received the cooperation from law-enforcement that the media has and he has not yet received any investigative documents, audio or video tapes, other than a copy of Mr. Slager’s arrest warrant,”the statement read.
Savage has since filed a more formal request.Activists from all over the country, some of whom are architects of the protest movement that began in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer there last August, have been arriving in North Charleston to aid a protest effort here. Will North Charleston become a theater of protest, like Ferguson?
And then of course, the biggest question: What would have happened had bystander Feidin Santana not happened on the incident with his cellphone camera?
These details linger as federal investigators, including the Department of Justice and the FBI, have launched investigations into the shooting along with the one being conducted by the State Law Enforcement Division. But many believe there should be an even wider investigation into law enforcement in the region.
“For years there have been problems with racial profiling in North Charleston that had gotten better, but more recently got worse,” said Joseph Darby, a vice president with the nearby Charleston branch of the NAACP. “I think the way that this plays out, I hope, is that people will call for there to be some further investigation to look at policy, look at procedures, look at all the agencies in the low country and how they do business.”
Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has urged the state’s residents to “unite” in the aftermath of Scott’s death. “We ask everyone in South Carolina to lift up the Scott family in prayer during this time,” she said in a statement Friday. “Tragedy has touched the lives of so many in North Charleston, but we have a responsibility to make our communities safer and stronger and prevent another tragedy in our state going forward.”
It has been six days since Slager, a 33-year-old white officer, killed Scott with four fatal shots to the back. But unlike the Ferguson incident and others involving black men killed by white law enforcement in recent months, those in power in North Charleston quicly stepped forward to condemn the killing.
In Ferguson, officials dragged their heels on releasing key information about the case and took an aggressive stance against growing protests in the city, including the deployment of a highly militarized force to quell the demonstrations. After a St. Louis grand jury declined to indict Wilson, the city erupted in rioting.In North Charleston, a city much divided along economic and racial lines, the city’s mayor and police chief have visited Scott’s family and vowed to walk with them every step of the way, even offering a police escort to Scott’s funeral on Saturday.
But protesters say Scott’s killing is still indicative of decades of problems with the police and black community, including allegations of prior abuse and brutality, including at least two other cases involving Slager. In one of those cases Slager allegedly pushed his way into a man’s home, dragged him out and shot him with a Taser as the man lay writhing on the ground.
Many locals say Scott’s death is a call to action.
On Thursday night dozens of protesters spilled from North Charleston City Hall after briefly attending a City Council meeting. During the meeting, a group lead by local Black Lives Matter protesters read a short list of demands, which included a sit-down with Mayor Keith Summey in the coming week and the formation of a civilian review board with subpoena power. The group demanded a meeting with the mayor be set within 24 hours.
Outside of the courthouse, where dozens have gathered each day since Scott’s killing, leaders pressed for two other initiatives: a voter registration drive they hope will force political change and a so-called “Do Shoot” campaign urging anyone who sees someone being pulled over by the police or being arrested to shoot video of the incident with their cell phone camera.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Santana and Scott’s parents met for the first time. They embraced in long, prayerful hugs. Scott’s mother, father and siblings have described Santana as a godsend and doubt Slager would’ve been charged without video of the shooting.
Before Santana’s video was released, Slager said that Scott had gained control of the Taser and that he feared for his life. The video contradicts those statements.
Many black residents of North Charleston, the state’s third-largest city, say Scott’s killing is a tipping point.
“His name is Walter Scott,” a teary-eyed man said late on Thursday night, outside of city hall where folks have gathered each day since Scott’s death last Saturday. “This is the new Selma and he is our Jimmie Lee Jackson.” The Jackson reference was to the black man whose killing in 1965 in Selma, Alabama by a white officer served as the impetus for the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Over the last 10 or so years North Charleston has undergone rapid population growth, and with it a rise in crime. Under the former chief, residents say, the response was aggressive and heavy-handed policing of black the city’s poor and black neighborhoods in particular. Tension grew as many blacks say they were the victims of unfair, not-so-random stops by police.
Like so many other communities across the country, there’s a literal and figurative dividing line in the city between the poorer south side and the more affluent north side. The south side is predominately black.
But local community leaders say the appointment of police Chief Eddie Driggers, an ordained Episcopal Deacon in 2012, seemed to change the tone a bit.
Still, they say, the culture that has dragged on for as long as many can remember continues to snare poor black folks in the city.