Walter Scott killing underlines racial tensions in police department

Updated

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Racial tensions exposed by the shooting death of a black man by a white police officer here extends beyond the community and into the police department itself, according to one of the few black officers on the police force.

A current North Charleston police officer told msnbc that a number of the department’s white officers are privately supporting former officer Michael Slager. Videotaped evidence shows Slager fatally shot Walter Scott in the back on April 4 and apparently lied about the circumstances that led to the fatal encounter.

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“I heard some white officers trying to justify what really took place, asking for more evidence after the video,” said the officer, who is African-American. “For me, I don’t need any more evidence. What’s evidence is what we saw,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media and fears reprisal.

Slager was fired from the force after the video evidence surfaced, and he has since been jailed and charged with murder. And while Slager’s actions have been widely and broadly condemned by the police chief and political leaders, the extent of support for Slager within the department has exacerbated racial tensions there, the black officer said.

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Some white officers, he said, feel that Slager should not be charged based on the publicly available evidence. “They still got that ‘we against them’ attitude,” in which police feel they are alone against an antagonistic public. “Making statements like that doesn’t help us in the healing process. Once you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” the officer said.

The same officer said a majority of the force’s black officers are not supporting Slager. No other police officer was interviewed for this story.

Asked for a response, Spencer Pryor, a spokesman for the North Charleston police department, said that “we have no knowledge of, and no comment about, an anonymous complaint.”

What began as a routine traffic stop for a broken brake light turned into a chase and confrontation between Slager and Scott. It ended with the officer first shooting Scott with a Taser and then with his gun as Scott tried to run. Scott was shot four times in the back. A fifth bullet hit his ear.

Slager initially told officials that Scott, 50, wrestled away his Taser and that he feared for his life.

Moments after the shooting, Slager is heard on his police radio saying, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.”

But a witness’s cell phone video, which captured the shooting and the horrific last moments of Scott’s life, contradicts Slager’s assertions. After the shooting, as Scott lay handcuffed and dying in a grassy lot, Slager is seen jogging back to where the confrontation began, picking up an object many believe was his Taser and then dropping it by Scott’s body.

The officer who spoke with msnbc said Slager, 33, shamed the department.

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“One of the traits you look for in an officer, first thing, is integrity. You’d like to have his back and believe what he says through all,” the officer said. “And when stuff came out later and showed that he was dishonest, it kind of puts you back, especially with the relationship here in North Charleston we’re trying to build with the community, he’s putting us back.”

The officer said that while he doesn’t know Slager personally, he had a reputation within the department for being aggressive with black residents.

“They say he was kind of a scared guy when it came to African-Americans,” the officer said. “He was a scared kind of guy who was always reaching for his weapon or something, wanted to be aggressive. That was the word about him from other officers.”

Slager “was a scared kind of guy who was always reaching for his weapon or something, wanted to be aggressive. That was the word about him from other officers.”
North Charleston police officer
While the city’s leaders have been praised for taking swift action in the case, local activists, residents and a growing number of protesters said the shooting has exposed a pattern of harassment and targeting of black residents.

About 50% of North Charleston’s population of nearly 100,000 is black. Its police force of 330 officers is overwhelmingly white, with just 60 African-American officers, according to Pryor, the police spokesman.

One black officer, Clarence Habersham, is at the center of the maelstrom over Scott’s killing and what many have described as an attempted cover-up.

Habersham arrived on the scene shortly after the shooting and is seen peering over Scott’s body. In the video, neither Habersham nor Slager appeared to attempt any life saving measures on Scott.

In the incident report filed after the shooting, Habersham was scant on details and never mentioned Slager picking up and then dropping an item next to Scott’s body.

The National Bar Association, a national group of black lawyers, has called for Habersham’s arrest and firing for filing a false police report.

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“In his report, Officer Habersham does not describe Officer Slager’s actions, but said that he gave aid to Mr. Scott and tried to give directions to the scene,” the group said in a statement. “However, there is no evidence on the video that show Officer Harbersham, or anyone else, administered CPR to Mr. Scott.”

The officer who spoke with msnbc said it’s incumbent upon the department’s black officers to step up and lead it in a positive direction. They’re on the front line when it comes to interacting with the black community, a group in which some feel aggrieved by real and perceived police harassment.

He said when he first joined the force, he’d been inundated by folks stopping him to say how badly the local police treat black residents.

“I took that as a personal goal to try to change that image, to try to mend that image,” the officer said. “They look for us for trust and help in a time of distress and crisis, and if you can’t trust the police, we’re in a bad place.”

The shock of the shooting is still settling in, he said, adding that he personally feels “devastated, hurt.”

“It’s not in my job description, he said, “but I think as a young minority in this profession and why I chose it, I’m going to have to go out and get out there in the community and say this is not what we’re about.”

Michael Slager, Police Brutality, South Carolina and Walter Scott

Walter Scott killing underlines racial tensions in police department

Updated