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Ex-cop Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing unarmed black man

A bystander's video showed police officer Michael Slager shooting and killing the fleeing, unarmed Walter Scott.

A screenshot taken from video of the police shooting of Walter Scott.
A screenshot taken from video of the police shooting of Walter Scott.
New York Times

Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man, was unarmed, facing away from a white police officer, and haphazardly attempting to flee in North Charleston, South Carolina. That didn't stop the officer, Michael Slager, from firing his gun at least eight times at the fleeing man, killing him.

Earlier this year, Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge related to the shooting, admitting that he did not shoot in self-defense and acknowledging that he knew his use of force was unreasonable. Then, on Thursday, Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In December 2016, more than a year and a half after the April 4, 2015, shooting, a jury failed to reach a verdict in Slager's trial for killing Scott — leading the judge to declare a mistrial. According to reports, the jury just couldn't reach the unanimous decision required for a conviction.

The case could have been retried in state court. But after Slager agreed to a plea deal with federal law enforcement, the state case was lumped in with the federal case. The plea deal, however, left a crucial question open: Should Slager's case be treated as second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter? US District Judge David Norton concluded the shooting was akin to second-degree murder, prompting a harsher sentence — of 20 years — than Slager would have gotten otherwise.

The shooting was recorded on film by a bystander, who turned over the video footage to authorities. The video has been widely credited with leading to charges of murder against Slager and the officer's firing from the police force. But it was not enough, apparently, to convince all 12 jurors of Slager's wrongdoing — although it likely helped in getting Slager to admit his guilt.

The case was the first time murder charges were brought against a police officer in a high-profile case after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to nationwide protests over racial disparities in police use of force in 2014. But the fact that it took nearly a year for a high-profile police killing to result in murder charges — and even longer for an actual conviction — shows just how rare prosecutions are against police officers involved in shootings.

The video shows a police officer shooting and killing a fleeing unarmed man

Warning: Graphic footage of the shooting:

Slager claimed Scott had attempted to take his stun gun and use it on him during a struggle before he opened fire. The video, however, shows Scott fleeing as Slager fired at least eight times at the man's back.

The confrontation began when Slager stopped a Mercedes-Benz for a broken brake light, according to Michael Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo at the New York TimesDash cam video shows Scott jumping out of the car and fleeing. He ended up at a grassy lot, where Slager caught up to him and tried to use a Taser to stop him. Scott then attempted to flee, and Slager opened fire, killing him.

After the shooting, the video shows Slager picking up an unidentified object — which appears to be his stun gun — from where he opened fire and dropping it by Scott, seemingly planting evidence by the body to give his side of the story more credibility.

It's unclear in the video if Scott ever had control of the stun gun or if there was a struggle over it before the shooting. Much of the state trial focused on the details of a potential struggle prior to what was recorded on video, according to ABC News correspondent T.J. Holmes.

The incident wasn't the first time Slager allegedly used excessive force on an unarmed black man. In 2014, Slager used a stun gun on Julius Wilson, who had already been restrained on the floor during a traffic stop by two other officers, Jon Swaine reported for the Guardian. In 2013, Slager used a stun gun on Mario Givens, who was at his home and in a shirt and boxers at the time, according to the Associated Press; Slager had reportedly mistaken Givens for his brother, who was a suspect in a case involving an ex-girlfriend.

Slager was fired from the police department shortly after the shooting. Now he's reportedly pleaded guilty to federal charges, facing time in prison.

Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers

Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.

Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported for ProPublica: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica’s analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."

There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.

One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they're going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.

That's not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, "There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates." That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.

One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."

Part of the solution to potential bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.

Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting

Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.

In the 1980s, a pair of Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — set up a framework for determining when deadly force by cops is reasonable.

Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, previously told Dara Lind for Vox. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.

The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."

A police officer at a shooting range. Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.

That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.

The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.

What’s "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can’t just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now," Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, previously said.

In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.

For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. "We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who previously headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."

Police rarely get prosecuted for shootings

Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.

"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Amanda Taub for Vox. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."

If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

The statistics make the outcome of Scott's death all the more remarkable: For once, a police officer is being held accountable for excessive use of force.

Watch: Why it's so important to film the police

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