Cindi Ross Scoppe

Why we shouldn’t be surprised by muted reaction to Slager mistrial

Walter Scott’s family and supporters urged calm after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of former police officer Michael Slager. Here Judy Scott, center, Walter Scott’s mother, is comforted by her son, Rodney Scott, as attorneys Chris Stewart, left, and Justin Bamberg discuss the mistrial.
Walter Scott’s family and supporters urged calm after a jury failed to reach a verdict in the trial of former police officer Michael Slager. Here Judy Scott, center, Walter Scott’s mother, is comforted by her son, Rodney Scott, as attorneys Chris Stewart, left, and Justin Bamberg discuss the mistrial. AP

THERE WERE NO riots in Charleston after a jury deadlocked Monday over whether former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager committed a crime when he killed the unarmed motorist Walter Scott.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone: Riots, which can never, ever be justified, are fortunately quite rare — despite the promiscuous way we toss about the word whenever two or more gather in public with protest signs.

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Nor were there protests of any consequence.

That shouldn’t surprise us either.

If that statement surprises you, consider a bit of context:

No one takes to the streets to protest when a common criminal kills someone during a robbery gone bad. Even serial killers and terrorists don’t elicit that sort of response. We’re horrified, yes, and outraged, yes, but we don’t protest — because we know that police are going to do all they can to hunt down the killers and bring them to justice.

Even if a jury deadlocks over the charges against the most heinous of killers, we don’t protest. That’s because, again, we know that the people involved in our criminal justice system — indeed, the criminal justice system itself — will respond appropriately. We don’t conclude that the system has failed us because jurors couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict — particularly when prosecutors asked them to pick from among multiple verdicts. We certainly don’t riot.

What has prompted the recent parade of protests after police killed unarmed citizens is our very long history of police not being convicted when they kill people who were unarmed. It’s the very long history of police not even being charged in those killings. It’s the long history of “investigations” that fail to probe inconsistencies in the officers’ stories, that can at best be called “cursory.” It’s the long history of police not even being fired in those cases. It’s the long history of police not even being suspended. It’s the long history of police not even being reprimanded when they kill unarmed people.

And please note the lack of the word “black” in all of those statements. Although the protests have involved black victims — and although I cannot dismiss the argument that conscious or unconscious racial bias has played a role in many cases — the salient point is not race. The salient point is “unarmed.” The salient point is that everyone should demand answers when police kill unarmed people, regardless of race.

It’s true that we’re starting to see too many protests that begin before we know whether the deceased were armed. But even with that disturbing trend, the fact remains that only a tiny minority of police killings generate protests. And the simple reason for that is that the vast majority of shootings, while tragic, are justified. Just as the vast majority of police are good and decent people whose names are being tarnished and lives endangered by the tiny, tiny minority of bad cops, who need to be fired, at the very least.

No official anybody anywhere keeps good records on this sort of thing, but a Washington Post study found only 90 of the 965 people killed by U.S. police in 2015 were unarmed. And only 6 percent of those incidents — about 60 — ignited protests. Which is to say that no one protested in about 900 cases where police killed someone. Only a handful of those protests led to violence, an essential element of a “riot.”

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But back to Charleston: Although the videotaped shooting of Walter Scott was one of the most egregious cases we’ve seen of an unjustified killing by a police officer, we never saw the circle-the-police-wagons mentality that has so justifiably generated protests the nation over. As soon as they saw the video, North Charleston officials fired Mr. Slager. He was quickly indicted. Even a police fraternal organization, which acted as his insurance company, refused to stand by him. He was jailed pending trial.

This is the opposite of the way police officers are usually treated after they kill people who aren’t armed. What is there to protest about that? (Yes, there were protests early on, but they were small, and calm.)

Unlike in some jurisdictions, the solicitor clearly was committed to prosecuting the case. And when the jury deadlocked, she immediately announced that she would retry it.

The mistrial certainly was a disappointment, because the videotape was so clear. But it is always, always dangerous to second-guess a jury’s verdict unless we were in the courtroom with the jurors, watching every bit of the trial.

On Thursday, the jury foreman told ABC News that although one juror adamantly opposed any conviction and five jurors initially were undecided, the final vote was 10-2 for a voluntary manslaughter conviction.

It there were in fact just two jurors who saw no crime, who believed that Mr. Scott got what he deserved — and we don’t even know that they felt that way — that’s not a failure of our society to recognize wrongdoing. That’s a failure of two people. And that’s not something we protest. That’s something we pray about.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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