A 33-year-old white South Carolina police officer has been charged with murder after video surfaced showing him fatally shooting a black man in the back as he ran away.
Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager, of the North Charleston Police Department, was arrested Tuesday, three days after the fatal shooting of 50-year-old Walter Scott, the Charleston Post and Courier reported.
The shooting happened at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, police said.
Slager was fired from the North Charleston Police Department after his arrest, according to the Los Angeles Times.
North Charleston is about 45 percent black, while four out of five officers are white, according to the Post and Courier.
Here’s what you need to know about Slager and the shooting:
1. Slager Shot at Scott’s Back 8 Times as Scott Ran Away
(Warning: Graphic Video)
The video, taken on a cell phone by witness Feidin Santana, shows Slager firing eight shots at Scott, the father of four children, as he ran away.
The Post and Courier reported that Scott was shot multiple times in the back, according to Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten. His death was ruled a homicide. Scott’s family said they were told by the coroner that Scott was shot five times. Two of the shots were fatal, according to the what Wooten’s office told the family.
In the three-minute video, Slager can be seen approaching Walter Scott after shooting him, yelling at him to “put your hands behind your back.” Scott is motionless, face down on the ground. Slager then handcuffs Scott as another officer, Clarence Habersham, comes to help Slager.
The video was released to the media on Tuesday by an anonymous source. Santana, who recorded the video gave it to Scott’s family, who turned it over to law enforcement, officials said.
Santana told NBC News he was walking to work when he saw Slager chasing Scott. He began recording when he heard Slager try to use the Taser.
“As you can see in the video, the police officer just shot him in the back,” Santana told NBC News. “I knew right away, I had something on my hands.”
He said he heard no warnings from the officer before he fired. None can be heard in the video.
Santana said the officer “made a bad decision,” and “you pay for your decisions in this life.”
He told Scott’s family he didn’t release the video immediately because he wanted to see how police handled the case.
“He wanted to see what reports were coming from the North Charleston Police Department because of the fact that they may have told the truth,” Scott’s brother told TIME on Wednesday. “And when they continued with the lies, he said, ‘I have to come forward.'”
“It’s not about race. It’s about power,” attorney L. Chris Stewart, the Scott’s attorney told the Los Angeles Times. “That officer thought he could just shoot this man. He thought Mr. Scott was expendable.”
At a press conference Tuesday night, Stewart said Slager “just casually shot a man in the back that many times. It speaks to the value of human life, which is a bigger issue than trying to just make this a small issue of race. This is a bigger issue of human life and the value of it. And when people start respecting that more, it won’t matter what color you are.” Watch the press conference below.
Stewart, the Scott family’s attorney, said anyone who watches the video can clearly see it was murder. He said he is “disappointed that the initial reports were totally on the side of the officer. The spokesperson for the police reported that ‘the man tried to grab the Taser’ and once again if we’d just took the initial newspaper reports, it would have been ‘why’d that guy grab the Taser, he shouldn’t have tried to hurt a cop.’ But that wasn’t what happened. And the truth came out.”
State Rep. Justin Bamberg, an attorney, said at the press conference, “Regardless of what may have happened leading up to this shooting, at the moment (Scott) turned and ran, and was no longer a threat to the officer or anybody else, that officer was completely and wholeheartedly unjustified in gunning down Mr. Scott. He did not shoot once. He shot seven times, paused, and then fired an eighth round.”
The family called Santana “hero.”
“We have to really recognize the strength and fortitude and fearlessness that it took to come forward when you know you just filmed a police officer murder somebody,” Stewart said at the press conference.
Santana told NBC News:
It’s not something that no one can feel happy about. He has his family, Mr. Scott also has his family. But I think, you know, he [the officer] made a bad decision, and you pay for your decisions in this life. Mr. Scott didn’t deserve this, and there were other ways that can be used to get him arrested, and that wasn’t the proper way to do that.
2. Slager Said Before the Video Was Released He Shot Scott Because He ‘Felt Threatened’
In statements made before the video was released, Slager claimed he feared for his life after Scott took his Taser from him.
Police said Scott’s Mercedes-Benz sedan was stopped because it had a broken brake light, according to the newspaper. Scott ran away from Slager, who chased him. During the chase, Scott confronted Slager, his attorney said in a statement. Slager took out his Taser, but he said Scott took the device during the struggle, overpowering the officer and making him fear for his life.
Slager said he then fired at Scott because he “felt threatened,” Slager’s attorney said Monday in a statement.
“This is a very tragic event for all of the families,” his attorney, David Aylor, said in the statement. “I believe once the community hears all the facts of this shooting, they’ll have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding this investigation.”
Aylor is no longer Slager’s attorney, saying in a post on his website Tuesday, “Today, I withdrew my representation of Michael Slager. This is a terrible tragedy that has impacted our community.”
The officer can be heard on police radio recordings saying, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.”
Listen to the dispatch audio here (the incident begins at about the 7:30 mark of the recording with the traffic stop):
The incident begins in the audio at about the 7:30 mark of the 30-minute recording as Slager calls in a traffic stop. He was pulling over Scott’s Mercedes-Benz for a broken light, police said.
Slager can be heard at about the 10:35 mark of the recording calling dispatch to announce he’s in a foot chase, describing the suspect as black in a green shirt and blue pants. The dispatcher then repeats his description and calls for radio silence other than transmissions related to the chase.
At about 11:05 of the recording, another officer says he’s in route to join the chase. Slager then tells the other officers of his new location and can be overheard telling someone to “get down on the ground.”
At 12:27 (9:38 a.m.), as the other officers try to find Slager, he says, “shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser.”
Slager then says a minute later that he needs his vehicle secured. He says the suspect has gun shot wounds to the chest, thigh and buttocks and is unresponsive. He tells the dispatcher the scene, behind a pawn shop in a field, is secure.
Another officer, Clarence Habersham, then arrives and confirms the injuries to the victim. He says over the radio that they’ve started to provide first aid, including chest compressions. An EMS unit arrives at the scene at about the 19:43 mark of the tape, about six minutes after Slager called in the shooting.
The Guardian synced the audio from the police dispatches with the video:
3. Slager May Have Planted His Taser Near Scott
The video is shaky as the altercation starts, and it appears that the Taser or another object is either tossed or falls to the ground behind the two men during the struggle. Slager then draws his gun and fires at Scott, who about 15 to 20 feet, with his back to the officer.
Slager can then be seen running back to where the altercation began to pick something up off the ground. He then goes toward Scott and drops the object, the video shows. It’s not clear if the object is the Taser.
The police incident reports were released to the Associated Press and other media (read the full reports at Buzzfeed) on Wednesday. They report does not include a statement from Slager. Other officers describe hearing Slager’s radio calls, responding to the scene, securing the scene and attempting to treat Scott. None of the officers discuss Slager’s actions, including the second officer in the video, Habersham, who appeared to come onto the scene as Slager was possibly moving the Taser.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey called the shooting a “bad decision” by the officer at a news conference Tuesday. According to the Post and Courier he said:
When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.
Stewart, the Scott family’s attorney, said Slager was only arrested because the incident was caught on video:
It would have just been the standard story of a police officer giving his version and that would be the end of it. In this case, this officer gave his story, and it turned out not to be true.
Anthony Scott, Walter’s brother, told the Washington Post, “All we wanted was the truth, and through the process we’ve received the truth. I don’t think that all police officers are bad cops, but there are some bad ones out there.”
Scott had been arrested about 10 times, reported the Charleston Post and Courier but mostly for failure to pay child support or failure to show up in court.
He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon.
“He has four children; he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record,” Stewart told the New York Times. “He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”
Anthony Scott said he last saw his brother three weeks ago at a family oyster roast. “We hadn’t hung out like that in such a long time,” Anthony Scott said in an interview with the Times. “He kept on saying over and over again how great it was.”
The former Coast Guard officer was a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys, his family said.
4. Slager Has Been Denied Bond & Is Eligible for the Death Penalty
According to reporter Christina Elmore of the Post and Courier, Slager was denied bond by a magistrate judge Tuesday afternoon. The judge didn’t have the authority to set a bond on a murder charge, Elmore said on Twitter. He can attempt to have a bond set by a circuit judge at a later time, Elmore reported. He is being held at the Charleston County Jail, in protective custody and away from other inmates.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said Slager was charged with murder, which is eligible for the death penalty or a term of 30 years to life in prison upon conviction. He was arrested Tuesday and booked at the Charleston County Detention Center. The case will be prosecuted by the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office.
Solictor Scarlett Wilson released a statement Wednesday, according to the Berkeley Observer. Wilson said:
As a lawyer and prosecutor, I am subject to special rules limiting my ability to make public comments about pending cases and defendants in criminal matters. For these reasons, my office cannot comment on the merits of the case. By law, the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until he is proven guilty.
My role is to hold accountable those who harm others unlawfully, regardless of profession. This office does not dictate nor comment upon police policy, training and procedure. I am, however, deeply concerned when those who are sworn to serve and protect violate the public’s trust.
She said the Charleston grand jury will not meet again until May. She said she will inform the media if/when the grand jury returns an indictment. Wilson also said:
The Defendant has made an appearance at bond court. Because of the nature of the charge, South Carolina law requires that bond be set by a Circuit Court judge. At this time, we have not received a defense request for bond. When/if we do, the public will be notified as to the time and place of the hearing.
Slager is now being represented by prominent Charleston defense attorney Keith Savage. He told the Post and Courier his office is launching its own investigation. He said, “I suspect it will take some time. As we focus in on the facts, we will probably have more to say, but it is far too early for us to be saying what we think. Slager’s previous counsel fell into that trap and we have no intention of doing our client further harm.”
The arrest was first announced by North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Diggers at a press conference Tuesday.
“We as a city want the family to know that our hearts and our thoughts are with them. Our prayers are with them,” Summey said. “We do not look at the responsibility we have lightly. We take the role that when we do wrong, we do wrong. But I want you to remember, we have 343 police officers in our department. This is a bad decision by one of those 343. And I think the lesson that we take out of this, and hopefully the general public takes out of this, is that when an incident occurs, give us the appropriate time to investigate, find out exactly what happened and we will act according.”
Diggers called Tuesday a “tragic day for me. … You know I think that all these police officers on this force, men and women, are like my children. So you tell me how a father would react to seeing his child do something.”
Watch the full press conference below:
Slager, who was fired from the department following the release of the video and his arrest, is also facing an investigation by the Department of Justice:
Scott’s family is planning a lawsuit, their attorney said at a press conference Tuesday night.
5. He Served in the Coast Guard & Has Been a Cop for 5 Years
According to the Post and Courier, Slager has been an officer for five years. He previously served in the Coast Guard. Slager’s personnel record, which was obtained by the Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that Slager was part of a boarding team while serving in Florida with the Coast Guard.
Scott also served in the Coast Guard, for four years in the 1980s, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Slager’s personnel file, published online by Buzzfeed, sheds light on the former officer’s past. He went to Lenape High School in Medford, New Jersey and worked as a waiter at a restaurant there before joining the Coast Guard in 2003. He last worked for the Coast Guard in Port Canaveral, Florida where he also did mechanical and engineering work and “enforced federal laws + treaties, port security,” he said in his job application.
He applied for a job with the North Charleston Police in January 2009 on the recommendation of another North Charleston officer.
Slager was accused of excessive force in 2013 when a man said Slager shot him with a Taser for no reason, but an internal investigation cleared Slager of wrongdoing, according to the Post and Courier’s review of Slager’s personnel file.
The complaint was filed in September 2013 when Slager responded to a North Charleston home to investigate a burglary. The resident opened the door for Slager and the burglary victim yelled he wasn’t the suspect. He later told investigators Slager threatened to use a Taser against him if he didn’t come outside, the Post and Courier reported. When he stepped outside, the man said Slager “Tased (him) for no reason and … slammed him and dragged him,” according to the personnel file.
Another officer told investigators Slager was forced to use the stun gun during a struggle and Slager was exonerated.
A witness to that incident, Yolanda Whitaker, told the Post and Chronicle on Tuesday that Slager pulled the man, Mario Givens, out of the home in his boxer shorts and then shot him with his Taser. Whitaker, who gave her account of the incident to investigators in 2013, said Givens had a history of drug charges and running from the police, but the “whole situation was uncalled for.”
He was cleared in another complaint, the Post and Courier reported, but details were not available. He was also cleared of wrongdoing in that complaint.
Slager, who lives 6 miles from North Charleston in the city of Hanahan, South Carolina, is married and has two stepchildren, according to the Post and Courier. His wife is eight months pregnant, the newspaper reported. Mayor Keith Summey said Wednesday at a press conference that the city will continue to cover Slager’s insurance until the former officer’s wife gives birth.
Watch full video of Wednesday’s press conference below:
A spokesman for the state police union, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Association told The Guardian that the union will not be providing legal assistance in the case because it doesn’t meet the “criteria of a meritorious defense.” The union said in a statement:
It is a sad for us when a police officer makes what appears to be a very bad decision that resulted in unnecessary death. Working with the community and elected officials we can overcome this tragedy. The swift decision to charge the officer demonstrates that law enforcement will not tolerate the tarnishing of the badge and oaths we all take so seriously.
According to Talking Points Memo, the crowdfunding site GoFundMe.com rejected a campaign to raise money for Slager. In the aftermath of the controversial Michael Brown shooting, a GoFundMe drive raised about $400,000 for Officer Darren Wilson. A page on another crowdfunding site, Indiegogo, remained active Wednesday afternoon, but had only raised $66 in the 16 hours it was online. A Facebook page and Twitter account were also set in support of him.