clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Charlotte police officer who shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott will not face charges

Police claim Scott, a black man, was armed and posed an immediate physical threat to officers.

The Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer who shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott — a shooting that led to protests and riots in September — will not face criminal charges, the local prosecutor announced on Wednesday.

According to police, officers were looking for a wanted suspect with an outstanding warrant in Charlotte, the Washington Post reported. They reportedly saw Scott — who wasn’t the wanted suspect — rolling a marijuana blunt, then holding a gun. The officers, who were wearing plain clothes at the time, left to put on an outfit that would clearly mark them as officers, then approached Scott.

During the confrontation, Scott left his vehicle and backed away, allegedly with a gun still in his hand — posing what officers said was an imminent physical threat. Police gave multiple warnings to drop the gun before they opened fire. A black officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, Brentley Vinson, shot Scott, killing him.

Warning: Graphic video footage of a police shooting:

After several days of protests in Charlotte, police finally released videos of the shooting — from other officers on the scene (the officer who fired his gun did not have a body camera on) and dashboard cameras. It is hard to tell in the videos whether Scott had anything in his hands at the time of the shooting, but Scott does not appear to aim anything at the police officers, contesting the police’s original claims.

Charlotte Police Chief Kerr Putney acknowledged as much, saying that the available video evidence does not prove that Scott threatened police with a gun: "The video does not give me absolute, definitive visual evidence that would confirm that a person [was] pointing a gun. I did not see that in the videos that I reviewed. What I can tell you, though, is when taken in the totality of all the other evidence, it supports what we've heard and the version of the truth that we gave about the circumstances that happened that led to the death of Mr. Scott."

Under the law, an officer must reasonably believe he or others are under immediate threat to use lethal force.

Police say they recovered the gun that Scott allegedly brandished from the scene. They later released images of the gun, an ankle holster, and the marijuana blunt.

District Attorney Andrew Murray said on Wednesday that Scott obtained the gun, which was previously stolen, 18 days before the fatal shooting. Investigators reportedly found Scott’s DNA on the grip and ammunition slide.

They did not find a book, despite some family members claiming that police had possibly mistaken a book Scott was reading for a gun.

Previously, the only video we had of the shooting came from Scott's wife, who was on the scene recording the events as they unfolded. But her video offered no significant evidence: It was too far away from the scene to make out what Scott and police officers were doing, and the shooting happened out of frame. It also didn’t answer the crucial question of whether Scott had a gun and brandished it against police.

Warning: Graphic video footage of a police shooting:

Vinson, the officer who shot Scott, was put on administrative leave as the shooting was investigated.

The shooting led to protests and even violence in Charlotte as people took to the streets to demonstrate against the shooting. To them, it is yet another example of the vast racial disparities in how American police use force.

The Charlotte protests turned violent in the first couple nights

Protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott turn violent. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

On the first night of protests, several people — including 16 police officers — were injured, leading police to deploy tear gas to try to disperse crowds, according to WSOC-TV. On the second night, police again used tear gas to disperse crowds blocking an interstate, people allegedly looted some businesses, and one man was reportedly shot — reportedly by another civilian — and died. Things calmed down by the third night, when protests were peaceful.

Historian Heather Ann Thompson explained the simmering anger that boiled over into violence over the first couple nights:

In short, Charlotte is one of the wealthiest cities in the country, but this prosperity hasn't touched overwhelmingly black West and Northeast Charlotte and it is one of the most heavily policed. And the police don't spend much energy policing — throwing people up against cars on a regular basis to search them for drugs — in overwhelmingly white South Charlotte.

And the excessive and aggressive policing of only Charlotte's poorest and blackest neighborhoods leads there, as it does in every other city in the country, to the killing of citizens by the police. It has led there, as it has elsewhere to outrage.

As historians have told me, this is what leads to urban uprisings and riots. It's typically not just one event — it's a confluence of factors, some of which may not be readily apparent to observers. "People participate in this type of event for a real reason," Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who's studied the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, said. "It's not just people taking advantage. It's not just anger and frustration at the immediate or proximate cause. It's always some underlying issues."

In this case, Charlotte protesters appear to be fed up with what they see as an abusive police force. This anger goes back to at least one recent police shooting that drew national headlines: the 2013 police shooting of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed 24-year-old black man who was shot 10 times and killed by a white police officer after he crashed his car.

These concerns are also shared by many in minority communities nationwide, with recent police shootings drawing widespread public and media scrutiny. In the days before the Charlotte protests, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher also garnered national headlines.

But due to the lack of video for the first few days of protests, we largely only knew only what police had said about the shooting. For many critics of police, that was as good as knowing nothing. Trust in the police is fairly low in black communities across the country to begin with — only 30 percent of black people reported "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police during a 2014-'15 period, versus 57 percent of white people, according to Gallup.

And over the past few years, several police accounts of shootings or killings, such as the police shootings of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati and Laquan McDonald in Chicago, have fallen apart when interrogated with video evidence. Coupled with the racial disparities, this made it particularly difficult for protesters to take cops at their word — leading to a real sense of anger that culminated in violent nights of protests.

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

Police killings by race. Alvin Chang/Vox

An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox’s Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it’s based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.

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. ProPublica’s Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "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 North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. 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 subconscious 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

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

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, told Vox’s Lind. 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."

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, 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 heads 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 suggest that it would have been a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Scott was charged and convicted of a crime.