Last week in South Carolina, a shooting brought the discussion of racial relations and police brutality back into the mainstream media—but this was no Michael Brown or even Eric Garner story. Michael Slager, a 33 year-old, white police officer shot Walter Scott, an unarmed, 50 year-old black man, eight times in the back.
But in this case, a local bystander captured the entire altercation on video, causing journalists to completely change the way they approached the story. The New York Times was one of the first media outlets to receive video footage and report the story:
WASHINGTON — A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.
The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.
Using the video as a primary source, the story above provides accurate facts about the event and those involved. It depicts Slager as the criminal and Scott as the victim.
The Huffington Post, however, decided to show how differently the story would have been reported if the video footage had never surfaced. Keep in mind, the story is hypothetical, but it obtained the information from actual police reports and records. But here we see the reverse of the NYT article—Slager is the hero for defeating Scott, a convict:
A North Charleston police officer was forced to use his service weapon Saturday during a scuffle with a suspect who tried to overpower him and seize the officer’s Taser, authorities said.
The man, who has a history of violence and a long arrest record, died on the scene as a result of the encounter, despite officers performing CPR and delivering first aid, according to police reports.
Contrasts in language and facts in these two stories paint completely different pictures for readers. It says a lot about how journalism depends on facts from public officials. When the police department provides information to journalists—no matter how true the facts may be—reporters have to trust them. How can journalists be credible if their sources are fabricating essential details to make themselves look better?
But thanks to Feidin Santana, the bystander who happened to be in the North Charleston neighborhood at the time of the incident, journalists and the American public can use their own judgment to determine what actually happened.
The video presents quite a different account from what Slager and other officials initially said. Scott is not seen trying to retrieve weapons or put up any kind of fight against the officer. Several policemen were at the scene, and none of them were shown performing CPR as the police reports stated.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Santana wasn’t sure if coming forward with the footage would be worth the consequences. The Good Samaritan almost deleted the video altogether until he realized what a difference it could potentially make in the case:
He decided to act after concluding that Slager’s confrontation with Scott was being misrepresented. “I saw the police report, and I saw it was going the wrong way…. I got mad,” he said. The official description of what happened “wasn’t like I saw it.”
He said he ultimately brought the clip to Scott’s relatives after realizing that if the same thing had happened to one of his family members, he “would like to know the truth.”
Had Santana erased the recording or not been at the scene, Slager could have quite literally gotten away with murder. But instead, the officer was immediately fired from the force and charged with murder.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn told citizens not to hesitate recording suspicious activity to help keep cops accountable and cause them to “really think twice before pulling their weapons,” according to Politico.
The case has once again stirred up tensions all across America about police brutality and injustice. About the same time this was happening in South Carolina, Ferguson, Missouri saw record turnouts at the polls for city council. Now three out of six members are black, more accurately representing the town’s two-thirds black population, according to the Associated Press.
Giving all citizens fair representation in their local government is a step in the right direction toward racial reconciliation all across America. After several city officials resigned following the Department of Justice’s review of the Darren Wilson case, the council now must hire replacements.
The Department of Justice found that Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown, who robbed a store and fought to physically harm the officer. Scott, on the other hand, was pulled over for a broken taillight and fled the scene to avoid jail time (according to his brother Anthony Scott, he was behind on child support payments).
“There’s a tremendous moral and legal difference between a person dying during an altercation with police and an officer willfully using lethal force,” said former cop Peter Moskos in an op-ed published in the Washington Post.
Moskos went on to discuss public criticism of police, and how when one cop makes a mistake, it reflects poorly on police officers as a whole. To put an end to unnecessary deaths like Scott’s and others we’ve seen in the past year, it is essential to “stop criminalizing so many people:”
What the deaths of Garner, Brown and Scott do have in common are individuals who didn’t want to go to jail and cops who wanted to take them there. So one logical way to reduce potentially deadly arrest situations — whether the deadly force involved is justifiable, questionable or criminal — is to stop criminalizing so many people. More productive than blaming police for enforcing existing laws would be to change and soften our laws in a way that does not jeopardize public safety.
The journey toward racial reconciliation in America will be a long and difficult one, and there’s no doubt that we’ll see more incidents like this in the future. But we can start bridging that gap by finding unity in diversity of our police forces, mainstream newsrooms and city councils everywhere.