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S.C. Police Officer Charged With Murder After Shooting Man In Back


A cell phone video of a police shooting has led to murder charges against an officer in South Carolina.


MONTAGNE: That startling moment from the video was filmed on Saturday in the city of North Charleston. The video begins with a black man named Walter Scott breaking away from a white officer. And as he flees, he's shot from behind by Officer Michael Slager. NPR's Martin Kaste has been following this story, and he joins us now. And Martin, that video is available online. But for those who haven't seen it, tell us a little bit more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, what we know right before that video starts is that this started as a routine traffic stop. Walter Scott had been stopped for a broken taillight. Somehow, things escalated. That's not on the video. But what you do see on the video is Scott bolting away from Officer Slager. And when he's about 15 or 20 feet away, the officer shoots him multiple times from behind. And use of force experts I've talked to say it looks pretty bad, but it's not an open-and-shut case.

MONTAGNE: Well, what are the rules when a suspect is fleeing from an officer?

KASTE: The Supreme Court says an officer can't shoot you just for running away. Police need to have a reasonable belief that a suspect is a significant threat either to the officer or other people. And that's why it's important to know here what kind of altercation these two men had leading up to the video, whether the Taser really had been stolen. But again, you don't see any direct evidence of that in the video.

MONTAGNE: And again, the shooting itself took place on Saturday. The video surfaced yesterday. So what's been the impact?

KASTE: It's been damning. And the city leaders of North Charleston admitted as much at a somber press conference yesterday. This is the mayor, Keith Summey.


MAYOR KEITH SUMMEY: I can tell you that as the result of that video and the bad decision made by our officer, he will be charged with murder.

KASTE: The mayor even went on to express his thanks to the unidentified person who recorded the video.

MONTAGNE: And how is the African-American community in North Charleston reacting to this? It's a large community.

KASTE: Yes, it's the largest single ethnic group in this city. And there's been quite a bit of friction with the mostly white police force. There have been complaints of racial profiling over the years and complaints of overly aggressive policing. So this situation doesn't help that at all. But at the same time, there's also kind of what you might call a post-Ferguson attitude from public officials. The governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, released a statement very quickly after the press conference calling the shooting not acceptable. The Justice Department says it's investigating. And, of course, the fact that the officer has been charged does make a big difference.

MONTAGNE: And Martin, enough of a difference that there won't be protests in North Charleston? Or is that sort of thing brewing?

KASTE: Well, there will be protests. Activists are promising something for today. But I asked Edward Bryant III, who's the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, about the mood there. And he thinks things will stay peaceful. But at the same time, he says people are very disturbed by this video. He's really focused himself on a moment in the video that comes about a minute after the shooting, where you see Officer Slager drop an object - it looks like it could be his Taser - on the ground next to Scott. And this is how Bryant sees that moment.

EDWARD BRYANT III: The way he went and got that Taser and planted it by the body on that young man, it reflects something very distasteful. It seems like it's been practiced. It's been already done. So it was natural for them to cover up and make themselves look good in light of what goes on. This time, it didn't work.

KASTE: And the NAACP's Bryant says he's convinced that this case would probably have been dismissed as a justified shooting by the police if it hadn't been for that video.

MONTAGNE: Martin, thanks very much. That's NPR's Martin Kaste.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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