Warren Bolton

Bolton: How many deaths have we missed of black men wrongly killed by white officers?

Columbia, SC

AS WE STRUGGLE to deal with the senseless brutality against and killing of black men by white police officers across the country, there is an even more terrifying and tantalizing two-word question that’s not been explored much, if at all: How many?

How many black men have been brutalized or killed at the hands of white officers over the years, only to have the reprehensible acts go unreported, unchallenged and uninvestigated?

We’ll never know the answer to that question. But it’s one I’ve pondered lately, one that I wonder about even more after a recent conversation with a 30-year law enforcement officer who has spent his entire career in South Carolina. He expressed little surprise about what a video revealed in the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston or the other recent high-profile cases involving the deaths of other black men at the hands of white officers around the country.

“Do you know how long this has been going on?” he asked. Practically forever, he said.

The sudden attention to the killings is largely due to the explosion of cellphones and Internet access, he said.

He’s right. The heightened sensitivity and focus on this issue isn’t driven by a monumental increase in deaths of black men; it’s driven by the advent of dash cam and cellphone videos, the Internet and social media. And let’s not forget the increased media focus on this issue, from many pushing more videos and stories on their websites and cable networks with talking heads feeding the 24-hour news cycle. There was a day when such brutality stayed mostly in the local community, with only very extreme cases making their way into the national media, often weeks or months, and perhaps even longer, after the fact.

Those days are gone forever. And in many ways, that’s a good thing.

Remember, if it wasn’t for the cellphone video shot by a passerby, we wouldn’t know the truth in the shooting death of Walter Scott last month. Initially, Patrolman 1st Class Michael Thomas Slager claimed Mr. Scott had attempted to grab his Taser during a struggle and that he feared for his life. But the video shows Mr. Scott running away even as the officer fires eight shots at him. Ultimately, the officer walks up to Mr. Scott and handcuffs the dying man. The officer then goes back and retrieves his Taser and drops it near Mr. Scott, who later is pronounced dead at the scene.

While there would have been enough evidence to raise serious questions about this shooting, an investigation wouldn’t have revealed everything the video shows. That video has been seen around the world countless times via media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. The same is true of other videos, such as the one showing events leading to the death of Eric Garner, who died when an officer placed him in a choke hold in Staten Island, New York.

When the video surfaced of Los Angeles officers unmercifully beating Rodney King in 1991, it shocked our nation’s consciousness. We’d never seen anything like that before, and I’m sure many of us thought we’d never see it again. But these days, we’re seeing it with regularity, and, unfortunately, unlike Rodney King, far too many of these black men aren’t surviving.

But the sad truth is that black men almost certainly have been dying in this manner all along. But, how many?

How many have been wrongly killed or abused over the years, only to have their demise swept under the rug because the only people left to testify were the officers involved?

While North Charleston authorities acted quickly once the video surfaced and charged the officer with murder, 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 the Walter Scott case, like others in which officers have claimed one thing only to have video reveal the truth, raises serious questions about practically every questionable case of abuse and death of black men at the hands of police in our state and around the country.

I can certainly recall instances during my time at the newspaper when local attorneys such as Hemphill Pride vigorously questioned whether certain black men were shot to death by white officers unnecessarily. But the officers’ stories prevailed; and perhaps they should have, I don’t know. Yet, the events unfolding today certainly raise questions.

And let’s not be naive. Not everything is caught on camera even today; there’s no guarantee that we always get the entire story absent video.

That’s why it’s so important for our state’s legislators — and elected officials across the country — to require and fund body cameras for all police officers. Not only will it protect innocent citizens, but it will protect police officers, all of whom have been cast in a bad light because of these tragedies. Of course we know that the overwhelming majority of officers are good, well-meaning, hard-working (and largely underpaid) public servants looking out for our good.

Along with body cameras, it’s important for all of us — from citizens and community leaders to elected officials and police officers themselves — to demand more proactive steps aimed at weeding out bad officers and applicants and better training for law enforcement. And, yes, it’s critical that we educate the public more about the need to respect officers’ authority.

The 30-year lawman I talked with said one of the biggest problems he has observed is that many in law enforcement are poorly trained when it comes to interacting with people. He said that while officers are constantly drilled on the law and shooting and police tactics, very little time is spent on how to talk to or deal with people.

Officers lacking interpersonal skills and understanding or appreciation of people unlike them might experience some of the unjustified fear that can lead to unjustified tragedies.

I understand that officers get fearful. They’re human. And they’re out there at all times of day and night in all kinds of dangerous situations. Regardless of any training, it’s only natural to be afraid sometimes. But it’s one thing to have legitimate fear of a real threat and another to have a fear of only certain people. And, for some reason, that kind of fear seems to raise its head more often in a most deadly way when black boys and men are involved.

In our gut, many of us long have believed that to be the case. It’s just that before now, there was no way to prove it. Want proof today? Check your Facebook page or Twitter account.

Reach Mr. Bolton

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