When Is It Legal For The Cops To Shoot You As You're Running Away?

Photo: Chuck Burton/AP Images.
The horrific video released Tuesday of a white South Carolina police officer shooting an unarmed Black man following a traffic stop is almost incomprehensibly gruesome. It is also an anomaly, a piece of visual evidence so clear and awful that the North Charleston police had no choice but to arrest officer Michael Slager for the murder of Walter Scott. Now, less than 24 hours after the video was released to the public, Slager has been fired and currently sits in jail, and both the city's police chief and mayor have expressed outrage. 

But, as Chris Stewart, the lawyer for Scott’s family, said in a news conference Tuesday, “What happened today doesn't happen all the time." He added, "What if there was no video, what if there was no witness?... Then this wouldn't have happened."

As Stewart pointed out, until the video — taken by an unidentified bystander — was released, the story of Scott’s death was that Slager shot him after a struggle for the officer’s taser. It’s all too familiar: a dead man, an officer who claimed there was a struggle for a weapon, and evidence that the unarmed dead man had been shot in the back. Had that gone unchallenged, would Slager have walked free? Probably. It's not illegal under U.S. law for the police to shoot someone who's running away, as long as they think he poses a threat.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that a police officer cannot shoot a fleeing suspect unless he or she has reason to believe the individual “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

But, when only one person survives the encounter, we're left with just the officer's word, and whether or not the deceased "posed a significant threat" — or even if the cop just thought he did — is open to interpretation.

"The law makes it clear the police can't use deadly force against a person who is running away" if that person is not a threat, Ezekiel Edwards, director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Refinery29. "But, the law does give great deference to police officers’ claims of physical fear and narratives that justify the amount of force necessary in a particular situation, and consistently provides legal cover to police force that is, in fact, excessive and unreasonable."
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Put another way: Cops often get the benefit of the doubt in these cases. According to a report by Charleston’s Post and Courier, there have been more than 200 police shootings in South Carolina in the past five years, and nearly all of them were deemed justified. There is no way to know if they actually were. As The New York Times reported, there is no requirement that police departments release information on their use of force.

Even when these encounters are recorded, convictions are rare: At least three recent cases were caught on tape and still didn't lead to convictions. The killings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Ohio Walmart shopper John Crawford III, and Staten Island grandfather Eric Garner exposed how severely police reports can differ from reality. Months after the video surfaced of police killing Tamir Rice and arresting his sister, the case still has not gone to a grand jury.

One proposed solution to the lack of police accountability is to outfit officers with body cameras. On Wednesday, TheWashington Post reported, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey announced that patrol officers would be given body cameras. If police officers record their interactions with suspects, the reasoning goes, there will be fewer conflicting narratives. But, as many activists point out, adding cameras alone will not change attitudes of impunity or erase bias. 

"There is a lot that departments should and are doing to avoid situations like these," said the ACLU's Edwards, everything from teaching de-escalation techniques, to identifying cops with histories of excessive force earlier, to overhauling how police enforce low-level offenses like the broken tail light that led to Scott's death.

Ordering major policy changes could help reduce the number of unjustified killings, but as the Justice Department's probe into Michael Brown's death and policing in Ferguson, MO found, institutional biases leave communities of color under threat, with virtually no recourse when a killing occurs without a video as clear and sickening as the one of Slager shooting Walter Scott.
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