Warren Bolton

Bolton: Don’t forget Walter Scott while protesting North Charleston shooting

Walter Scott
Walter Scott

LET’S NOT forget Walter Scott.

That’s the name of the 50-year-old North Charleston man who was shot and killed Saturday by a police officer. Mr. Scott was a father of four who had served in the Coast Guard. His family described him as an outgoing person who loved people. He was a Dallas Cowboy fan.

We ought to mourn with Mr. Scott’s family, which needs all the prayer and support it can get. Anyone who has lost a loved one in any manner will tell you it’s difficult to handle. But to lose someone violently. At the hands of an officer of the law. Shot repeatedly in the back. Over what began as a stop due to something as minor as a broken brake light.

We can’t begin to imagine the anguish this family is enduring.

Yet we are compelled to try. After all, the officer who shot Mr. Scott shot in our name. Any time any law-enforcement officer pulls his gun and shoots, he does so in our name. It’s the public that funds and empowers officers to serve and protect. When they use poor judgment or blatantly abuse the great latitude we extend to them, it’s incumbent upon not just elected officials and law-enforcement leadership but all of us to demand action and change.

Which brings me to the reason I began this column by imploring you to first remember Mr. Scott as a person and fellow human being.

Mr. Scott also was a black man, the latest to be added to the list of African-American men in this country killed by a white police officer. At this point, no one knows if race played a role in this shooting.

But given the high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of white officers that have led to protests, marches and calls for change in how we police across the country — from Ferguson, Missouri, to Staten Island, New York, and South Carolina — it would be naive to try to avoid this as an issue.

Until now, South Carolinians had marched and protested and called on change largely in response to the events in Ferguson and New York; we haven’t had to deal with such an issue head-on.

But, unfortunately, now we know for sure that it can happen in South Carolina in this day and time. And given the video that captured the incident, this is one of the most blatant, if not the worst, among the recent cases that have occurred across the country.

Just consider the facts:

Initially, Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager, 33, said that Mr. Scott had attempted to grab his Taser during a struggle and that he feared for his life. But the video shot by a bystander revealed a much more tragic truth: It shows Mr. Scott running away even as the officer fires round after round at him. Ultimately, the officer walks up to Mr. Scott as he lays in a field and handcuffs him, offering no real help to the wounded man. The officer then goes back and retrieves what I assume is his Taser and drops it near Mr. Scott, who later would be pronounced dead at the scene.

It’s easy to imagine that had this tragedy not been captured on video, the officer’s initial story would have stood and Mr. Scott would simply be another statistic.

Let’s give North Charleston officials credit: Once the video came out, they didn’t hesitate to act. They’ve charged the officer, who has now been fired, with murder. That’s something that doesn’t happen often in our state when it comes to police officers.

S.C. officers have been involved in more than 200 shooting incidents in the past five years; nearly all were determined to be justified and led to no charges.

But it’s hard to ignore a video of an officer shooting a fleeing man in the back. While our law says that the officer is innocent until proven guilty, it was important for North Charleston officials to bring charges. If they didn’t, they would lose the public trust and confidence. They would raise questions about a cover-up and fan the flames of racial tension.

Just the same, expect many questions to be raised by individuals and organizations such as the NAACP and ACLU. And rightly so. It’s imperative that people have confidence in law enforcement.

While the majority of people in law enforcement are hardworking and are trying to do the best job possible, there are bad policies, bad practices and bad actors that need to be dealt with.

It’s legitimate to call for more accountability, transparency and training to protect the public as well as officers.

Not surprisingly, protests already have begun over Mr. Scott’s senseless death. Mr. Scott’s family is asking for the full truth to be revealed but also is asking protestors to be peaceful.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with protests calling for justice and answers. I’d expect nothing less. But sometimes they take on a life of their own, and the person who lost the most ends up being remembered the least.

Before we turn Mr. Scott into a larger-than-life martyr or a movement, let’s embrace the fact that he was a real, live human being — a father, a brother, a son, a friend. A South Carolinian.

By first embracing him as one of us, we are more apt not only to get to the bottom of why this happened to him but also to take action to help ensure it doesn’t happen to others.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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