On April 4, 2015 in North Charlton, North Carolina a black man named Walter Scott was shot by a white police officer named Michael Slager. Slager alleged that he pulled over Scott for a traffic violation, Scott resisted arrest and took his taser. At this point Slager decided to take action; he shot at Scott and killed him.
If things had gone as they usually do, Slager would have likely been believed.
But the key difference here was that footage was taken of the event showing Scott scuffle with Slager, running away, then taking five shots at Scott, striking Scott in the back with three of them. Afterwards, Slager moves towards Scott and places something besides him, presumably the taser he alleged Scott had taken from him during their scuffle.
Even more stunning than the footage were the results: Slager was fired from his position as a police office and charged with murder.
The mayor and police chief both publicly distanced themselves from Slager, with the mayor Keith Summey saying, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And 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.”
This is surprising given how many police hold their positions after suspected crimes, and how few go unpunished. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that while egregious cases can result in officers being prosecuted, the chances are overall very slim. In addition, prosecutions are often much weaker than if a citizen was prosecuted under the same laws.
Which makes the fact that Slager has been charged with “deprivation of rights” according to CNN, a federal offense, all the more shocking. CNN reports, “A statement from the U.S. Justice Department says that Slager killed Scott ‘without legal justification.’ If Slager is convicted of the deprivation of rights charge … he could face a penalty of life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.”
Even the attorney for Scott’s family said that “this never happens,” and Scott’s family is hoping this will be a “watershed moment” in police accountability. Surely the Scotts deserve some sort of justice and this situation is something of an improvement over most.
But federal indictments, fines and prison time are all benefits for the government. All of that money that Slager may or may not end up actually paying is going to go to the federal government. CNN’s report makes no mention of the family themselves getting any sort of recompense or that any of the money the government may get, going to them.
The federal government claims that the “obstruction of justice” makes this a federal offense, but whom did the obstruction affect the most? Did it affect the the federal government or the grieving family the most? Framed like this, the answer seems painfully obvious.
The other problem with state-funded justice is that it doesn’t ask deeper questions because it fundamentally can’t. If the Department of Justice started asking itself, “Well why are all of these police departments killing so many people of color?” they’d have to consider their pocketbooks a bit more. They’d have to consider whether there are issues that are rooted in the way the system itself operates.
Given the perverse incentives at play, I sadly doubt that federal indictments will avenge Scott’s death or make fewer Walter Scott situations happen. To do either of those things we need to take a more fundamental look at how the police and government have formed a symbiotic relationship. One that is based on civil forfeiture, racial prejudice and unequal treatment under the law.
Asking these bigger questions can open us up to the alternatives of justice based on restitution, transformation and restoration. Methods of justice that ask us how given events affect us individually and collectively and how we can all best heal. Locking more people in cages and fining them thousands of dollars is unlikely to reform Slager or give the Scott family the justice they deserve.
If we want to find the justice we seek, let’s create it ourselves and within our own communities.