Finding Error and Empathy

When Walter Scott exited a Mercedes Benz he was test driving during a traffic stop, was he running towards freedom or away from responsibility? Conversely, when former officer Michael Slager fired his weapon, was his intent to protect and serve the community from a threat, a reaction based in racial prejudice, or an act of cold blooded murder. These questions are relevant, yet nearly impossible to answer. There is a wedge between the black community and police officers. This is currently and has been an epidemic for a while, however technological advancements have placed it on cell phones, televisions, and in newspapers. Once again, we have a black male dead under circumstances that can be described as cloudy at best. Blame has emanated from both sides, and right on cue we as Americans have drawn the battle lines. And they’re racial.

Eerily similar to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a man was found to be in violation of the law, these violations ultimately led to their demise. It is not a huge leap at all to point out that none of these men deserved to die for their actions. It has also not been a huge leap for grand juries to side with the respective officers’ account of the incidents. Often, as it is in this case an officer testifies or gives an official statement iterating that he felt his life was threatened throughout the course of the incident. However, most evidence released always seems contrary to that fact in the eyes of the public. In reality however, it doesn’t matter. In a commencement address to a graduating class at Morehouse University student nearly two years ago, President Barak Obama referred to an adage that should be familiar to all black males. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far. [pullquote]In a commencement address to a graduating class at Morehouse University student nearly two years ago, President Barak Obama referred to an adage that should be familiar to all black males. You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.[/pullquote]This idea isn’t exclusive to advancement in the workplace, unfortunately this idea is directly applicable to survival.

North Charleston, South Carolina, sits directly above the picturesque tourist haven of Charleston. North Charleston has higher rates of crime as well as higher rates of lawsuits against its police department. Walter Scott was not a stranger in dealing with the NCPD. He had various run ins with the law dating back ten years, which also included a six month jail sentence. His infractions were non-violent and often revolved around his inability to pay child support or fines imposed by the court. Various reports place the amount he owed in child support at the time of his death to be slightly north of $18,000.

Walter Scott was, according to interviews and reports that I’ve read, not a violent person. He did not threaten officer Slager. He exited the car once and got back in immediately when asked. However less than a minute after exiting the first time, he made a choice. It’s important for those who place one hundred percent of the blame on Michael Slager to realize this. During the course of this traffic stop, fear overtook Walter Scott. Whatever thoughts he had once he re-entered the vehicle made him take off. He was going to be taken to jail. There’s no doubt about it, he knew it, his passenger probably knew it, and had Michael Slager finished running his information he would’ve also known it too. Friends and family commented that he was often afraid of returning to jail for child support and that he found the idea useless.

There is at least a sliver of substance in that line of thought. Putting a man in jail further hinders him from being able to provide for his family or catch up on back child support. However fleeing on foot is not a path to the reform of state child support laws. Walter Scott had a responsibility to stick around for his children, whether that be six months later when he was released or a mere few days later. Black men do not live under rocks, we know better than anyone what the police are capable of doing. This has to be taken into account during every interaction with law enforcement. My dealings with the police of North Charleston have been by no means plentiful, however the idea that the situation could go horribly wrong has always been in the back of my mind, and for those tense moments I adjusted my behavior accordingly. Of course it’s not fair, however the concept of fairness should become much less important when faced with the idea of not only personal survival but also parenthood.

Michael Slager’s history with the police force can be described as average. He was respected within his community of officers and participated in continuous job training. He had two formal complaints filed against him, however, neither of which resulted in heavy disciplinary action. He was previously accused of unnecessarily using his Taser on an African American man. Cell phone video and dash cam video have provided us with footage of nearly the whole encounter.

Like most controversial deaths at the hands of the police, the motivation is fear. When Walter Scott took that first exit from his vehicle he was sternly told to get back inside. It could be understood that Slager felt a sense of fear upon looking up to see the subject out of his vehicle. The problem arises when fear leads to excessive force. There is not a doubt in my mind that the officers who find themselves in the situations are fearful. The reasoning behind their fears might be where the flaws live. It would seem that officers are more fearful of their black subject. They seem to be on higher alert and more likely to use their weapons or excessive physical force.

There is a racial bias. This is an uncomfortable subject, most officers would rather not admit to it, and the police forces they represent like it that way. As an officer, Slager would have been adequately serving his community by chasing and subduing Scott who was nearly twenty years older than him. We ask a lot of the officers in our community. This also might not be fair, but it is one of their utmost responsibilities to get decisions that have lethal consequences right every single time.

Simply put, the law enforcement community and the black community have a lack of trust that runs both ways. Often times during a traffic stop both sides are so caught up in their own fear that they are unable to sense it from the other side. In order for healing to take place, both sides are going to have to meet in the middle. Officers will have the difficult task of separating personal opinions or prejudice from their actions on the job. Black males will have to be more cognizant of their actions when dealing with law enforcement. Everyone has work to do. Protesters and activists on both sides will need to begin acknowledging ambiguity. [pullquote]Everyone has work to do. Protesters and activists on both sides will need to begin acknowledging ambiguity[/pullquote]

The media should recognize and cover the public outcry, however they should also do their job and report the facts only. In terms of finding fault, placing the blame wholly on one party only fuels the fire. On personal levels, the men on both sides should make sure their actions don’t jeopardize their ability to return home to their families. The most disheartening part of the situation is that there are now more young children in the Slager and Scott families who will grow up without fathers.

As much as there needs to be activism on reform, there also needs to be specific attention paid to generating empathy. If you listen closely to the dash camera video of Michael Slager you will hear the song “What’s It Like” by Everlast, a white Hip Hop artist and singer. The song poignantly paints pictures of people who would otherwise be looked down upon by society including a homeless man, a woman who has an abortion, and a drug dealer. As he weaves stories of despair, the refrain remains the same in that until place themselves or are place in the situation of that particular person it’s difficult to understand. This will always be the case without more transparency, cooler heads, and candid conversation.

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