IT’S ALL A FABLE, this idea that some amazing something in South Carolina’s DNA caused us to react not with rioting and animosity but with kumbaya calm when we saw videotape of North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager gunning down Walter Scott as the unarmed man with a busted taillight ran away.
The reality is that North Charleston didn’t become another Ferguson or Baltimore not because would-be protesters were different but because the official reaction was different: Mr. Slager was fired, charged with a crime and arrested.
We should never feel good when an unarmed person of any race is killed by a police officer whose life is not endangered. But what transformed such killings into a movement was what for too many years in too many places had always happened next: nothing. No charges. No discipline. Often not even a real investigation.
We can pass clear deadly force rules and require police to wear body cams. We can do a better job of training police, to help them recognize their biases and to help us weed out rogue officers. And we need to do all that. But laws alone don’t change the culture. And our culture needs some work.
The Aiken Standard reports that former North Augusta police officer Justin Craven ceased working as a city building inspector on May 3.
That was 23 days after Mr. Craven pleaded guilty to official misconduct in the death of Ernest Satterwhite Sr., whom he shot after chasing the drunken Mr. Satterwhite 13 minutes to his home.
It was nearly 13 months after Mr. Craven was charged with a felony count of discharging a firearm into Mr. Satterwhite’s occupied vehicle, by then parked in his own driveway.
It was 27 months after Mr. Craven rushed up to Mr. Satterwhite’s car, struggled momentary with the driver, then pulled back and opened fire.
Police are notorious for protecting their own. And I understand that they have incredibly difficult and dangerous jobs. They need to understand that protecting officers who don’t deserve protection only makes their jobs more difficult and more dangerous.
Mr. Craven was placed on administrative leave after he killed Mr. Satterwhite, and remained on the police force for more than seven months. Yes, I know: innocent until proven guilty, and for those seven months, he hadn’t even been charged.
It’s what happened next that feeds the sense that police get a free pass: The day after Mr. Craven left the police department, he went to work as a city building inspector. And he remained in that job after he was indicted. And he remained in that job after he pleaded guilty.
I’m trying to imagine our reaction if an elected official was charged with a felony — even something so comparatively insignificant as misspending campaign funds — and was allowed to remain on the government payroll for 13 months. And was allowed to remain on the government payroll for 23 days after pleading guilty to a lesser charge that grew out of the fact that he misspent campaign funds.
This was one of the good cases. A case where a solicitor decided to bring charges against the officer who killed an unarmed driver whose crime was being too drunk to have sense enough to pull over for the blue light. A driver who had a history of traffic violations but nothing more.
And we wonder why black people are angry about how police officers, black or white, are treated when they kill unarmed black people?
Three days after Mr. Craven finally left the government payroll, The Washington Post published the first disturbing article in a series on police shootings in South Carolina. The focus was on SLED’s investigation of a shooting — which might kindly be called shoddy, or inept, or protectionist.
The article recounted the night in 2008 when three officers went to a rural home to serve warrants on a woman for failure to appear in court for an open container violation, driving on a suspended license and bouncing a $219 check. After they ripped open the back door and shot and killed the woman, the officers told SLED she had confronted them with a gun.
SLED found the killing justified even though its own calculation of the bullet trajectories was incompatible with the officers’ story. Even though what the officers described as a semi-automatic rifle was in fact a BB gun, which is incapable of producing the muzzle flash, loud boom or plume of smoke that the officers described. Even though the victim’s fingerprints weren’t on the gun.
In a deposition, the attorney for the woman’s estate asked the SLED captain who supervised the investigation if the shooting would have been justified if the woman had not fired the gun:
Attorney: Let’s just assume these cops aren’t telling the truth …
Supervisor: But they are telling the truth.
Attorney: How do you know that?
Supervisor: Because they’re police officers, and I believe what they’re telling me.
And we wonder why black people are angry about how police officers are treated when they kill black people?
What we ought to wonder is why more white people aren’t angry.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.