Civil Rights

Walter Scott’s killing shows need for body cameras and federal review

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Toward the end of my first year of law school at the University of Florida in 1996, I returned to my apartment to receive a care package from my parents that contained an autographed copy of the late Johnnie Cochran’s book Journey to Justice. Cochran’s semi-autobiographical work primarily chronicled his efforts as lead counsel in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, one billed as the “Trial of the Century” the year before that led to Simpson’s acquittal in the deaths of his former wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman.

{mosads}But to a young law student wanting to follow in Cochran’s footsteps, the most compelling aspects of the book included his numerous stories about clients he called the “No J’s”: black men and women of limited means who had been wrongfully harassed, beaten, arrested and killed by a menacing Los Angeles Police Department. Cochran also blasted what he and others often call “testilying,” or the habit for officers to lie about facts, plant evidence or cover up their misdeeds against black suspects.

Once again, America has been rocked by yet another incident of police violence against a black defendant, this time in North Charleston, S.C., where Officer Michael Slager, 33, shot and killed Walter Scott, 50, after a routine traffic stop. Scott’s case likely would have been closed and deemed “solved” but for Feidin Santana, an onlooker who taped the encounter on his cellphone. In a matter of one week, Slager’s version of events — that Scott had grabbed his Taser and was killed in response — was completely rebutted by a tape showing Scott, in a desperate sprint, being gunned down from behind almost 35 yards away.

There is an extreme level of frustration that many blacks feel when our individual stories of police misconduct are told and are met with equally extreme skepticism by non-blacks. Even more frustrating for most black victims is the realization that for many whites in America, an officer’s words are considered Gospel because the experiences that they have with law enforcement are not even remotely the same as blacks and Latinos. Indeed, for years, comedians like the late Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have joked about the disparate views about the police according to race, but the reality is no laughing matter.

Even worse, the popular media have contributed to the belief that crime is primarily a black or brown problem, particularly with respect to the so-called “War on Drugs,” one that casts the police as heroic figures. As such, many whites instinctively believe that the billions of dollars in illicit drug profits stem primarily from sales in poor black communities as opposed to understanding that most illicit drugs, particularly cocaine, flourish among more affluent whites. The hypocrisy is that affluent whites rarely are caught doing their drug misdeeds and when they are, like former Florida Republican Rep. Trey Radel, who was busted for cocaine possession last year, the result is usually a slap on the wrist, drug rehabilitation and a fresh start on life — not a lengthy stay in prison.

Tragically, the mindset among many officers is that any black citizen, even one stopped for a broken taillight like Scott, is a “threat.” The subjective “officer safety” standard often serves as a shield that allows many officers to beat or kill a suspect with little or no fear of reprisal from their department, the local prosecutor’s office or the grand jurors who often buy their version of events without any critical analysis. Therein lies the problem that we face today: realizing that but for the Fantana video, Slager is not facing any murder charges for killing Scott.

And yet, videotape evidence still did not compel a Staten Island, N.Y. grand jury to indict officers for the strangling death of Eric Garner, 43, last summer. Videotape evidence did not prompt a Cleveland grand jury to indict officers for killing Tamir Rice, 12, for playing with a plastic toy gun at a local park last fall. And lest we forget that videotape evidence did not end with a state court conviction for all four officers charged with beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. (Two officers were later convicted in a federal trial of violating King’s civil rights.)

As such, I join those calling for mandatory body cameras on all law enforcement officers in America. But I go a step further in calling upon Congress to enact a measure that would enable the FBI and the United States Attorney’s offices across America to review each and every state or local level incident where a police officer has killed a suspect. The number of deaths are not high enough to cause a strain on federal resources and the concept of federal oversight would at least provide some measure of comfort that local law enforcement officials — often chummy with the very prosecutors who would have to render a decision to charge or present to a grand jury — will be more carefully scrutinized.

Hobbs is the son of a former military and civilian police officer and is a former prosecutor and current trial lawyer who specializes in criminal defense and wrongful death actions. He also is an award-winning freelance writer who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Commentary by the Tallahassee Democrat in 2010. Follow him @RealChuckHobbs on Twitter.

Tags Eric Garner Johnnie Cochran Michael Slager North Charleston Police police shooting Rodney King South Carolina Tamir Rice Walter Scott War on Drugs

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