The video released this weekend showing a North Charleston (S.C.) Officer shooting an un-armed Walter Scott looks bad. That was the first thought I had, and one thing is for sure: there will be no shortage of opinions following the video and arrest of Officer Michael Slager.
Whether justified or not, a tragic mistake or an intentional murder, we certainly need to let the justice system operate before the North Charleston community or country passes judgment. It is this patience that we, as a nation, have been unable to let play out in recent years. Whether a sign of the 24-hour media cycle, a distrust of law enforcement or a society so sensitive to race that we need immediate resolution, we need to understand that how our communities, political leaders and law enforcement react to this most recent incident will tell us if we have progressed from the knee jerk reactions and false narratives of previous incidents.
This Is Ugly
When I look at this video it turns my stomach. I’m a huge believer that we must be careful in judging the actions of law enforcement because being in the stress and tension of the moment is vastly different than on my couch watching a video, but this video seems different. There appears to be deliberate and intentional actions by the officer to change the sequence of facts. I can’t explain it; I don’t understand it and this is likely why decisions were made very quickly by the prosecution.
The System Worked
There has been much said in recent months about the criminal justice system and failure of grand juries to indict cops and the perceived bias of the system. Not only is that unfair, but it’s unfortunate because our criminal justice system works, and just because someone may not agree with an outcome does not mean our system of justice is bias, racist or unfair. North Charleston is an example of this. Not only did the system work, but the arrest was swift. While North Charleston is an example, keep in mind so is Ferguson, New York City and a host of other high profile incidents. The success of the justice system is not what public opinion wants, but what the facts say and the law bears out. In almost every incident, this takes time and the maturity of others to let it play out.
This Is Not Evidence of a Racist Profession
This incident looks very bad. An un-armed African America man is dead and a white police officer is in jail, but it is blatantly unfair to cast an entire profession or agency as racially biased. In fact, Officer Slager’s personnel file was released to the media and shows no pattern or practice of negative behavior. I think it’s safe to say that racist individuals don’t begin that deplorable behavior at 33 years old, or after five years of what looks to be exemplary service as a police officer. This incident certainly has nothing to do with the 800,000-plus officers working in more than 18,000 agencies today. While this incident certainly appears to be a problem, it does not mean the profession is a problem. Millions of police-citizen contacts are made each year, and many of them contain video captured by the agency or by citizens. While not perfect, American law enforcement is the most professional it has ever been and there are continuous efforts to build on that.
Video Changes This Profession
The advent and ease of capturing video has changed everything for law enforcement and, in general, that is positive. Just today I ruled out a rudeness complaint based on car video, but the citizen still wasn’t happy. I can’t help that perception. The video showed a professional encounter and despite that, the customer is adamant the officer is wrong.
While video is changing our profession it will not be the solution to make everyone happy with law enforcement. Entire contexts of the incident cannot be captured and while the video shows a two dimensional look at the scene, it is still impossible to see it through an officer’s eyes, often encountering high stress levels, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. Split second decisions are judged with the pause/play button. Rules of engagement set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court are not well known. Police tactics, case law and training are often not understood and yet most will believe that video is all they need to see to know the truth. Law enforcement is very complex; each situation can be different based on a slight variation in the facts. Much of those facts and contexts will not be visible on video and the public, especially those who influence others, needs to understand that. Video is a tool, but it’s just one tool out of many that must be used when looking at police incidents.
We Must Be Honest
While the North Charleston incident is not an indicator of a widespread problem in law enforcement, we must be honest with ourselves. Our profession was born out of a history of prejudice and, while no one wearing a badge today was a part of that, it is a part of what some see in us. If distrust of law enforcement came from our past, then why not use the now to correct it? We must be open and transparent with our communities and we must focus on customer service as if we were a business that relied on its customers to stay in business. How we treat others does matter, and while I have seen some of the most loving acts of kindness given by those in our profession to others, I have also seen what the actions of one can do to all of us.
While we must be honest, so do those in positions of influence and power. Just because one politician or actress had a bad experience with law enforcement doesn’t give them the right to blast an entire profession. We’ve seen too much of that and it does not move us forward. Society, just like law enforcement, has a responsibility to bring fairness and common sense to the table.
How Does This End?
As I stated earlier, our society has not shown great patience and understanding when it comes to police incidents. That lack of patience has created the “hands up, don’t shoot” mantra that we now know was a complete lie. That lack of patience started riots in the streets and the burning of buildings in communities, and if we aren’t careful, that lack of patience will continue to drive a divide between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to protect and serve. Other cities have contributed to that divide by perpetuating falsehoods, inciting others and race baiting. It’s North Charleston’s turn and if this week is an indication, they have a different approach and I hope, in the end, it’s one the rest of us can model.
Travis Yates is a writer and editor at Law Officer. An ILEETA Trainer of the Year, his Seminars in Risk Management & Officer Safety have been taught across the United States & Canada. Major Yates is a current Doctoral Student in Strategic Leadership and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the Director of Training for Law Officer (www.lawofficer.com) and the Founder of the Courageous Leadership Institute (www.courageousleader.org), providing leadership consulting and training to law enforcement around the world.