The US has been rocked once again by another sickening incident of police violence. On April 4, Michael Slager, a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, pulled over Walter Scott, a black man, for what Slager described as “a minor infraction on his vehicle, a brake light being out.”
It was not until a video was sent to the New York Times that what really happened emerged. The footage clearly shows a brief altercation after which Scott flees and Slager takes aim and shoots him six times in the back.
Having seen the video, Slager’s police chief Eddie Driggers admitted he was “sickened by what I saw, and I have not watched it since”.
This was not an isolated incident. Slager himself was previously accused in 2013 of unlawfully using his taser against a suspect, though he was later exonerated. The North Charleston police department also has a long record of abuse allegations.
The crucial point, though, is that it was not until the incident was caught on tape that the force was held accountable for its actions.
This is just the latest of several high-profile cases over the past year that have captured the nation’s attention and highlighted problems of racism and the undue aggression seemingly rife within American law enforcement.
But the North Charleston case also reveals just how easily those in power are willing to use deception to cover up their use of force.
Despite this troubling history, the officer’s official account was quickly accepted by the local media. They took as fact that there was a physical altercation between Slager and Scott and that the officer was simply defending himself against a violent suspect resisting arrest. Until the video shot by a bystander emerged, Slager was well on his way to avoiding any charges.
This conforms to several other recent incidents where video has been used to disprove official police accounts defending their use of force against citizens, including a Washington man who was similarly shot in the back by police while trying to run away.
In the past, such deceitful practices were considered common practice for many police officers. According to one legal analysis, planting weapons was once simply “standard operating procedure” for cops.
Cases such as the North Charleston incident prove this is still an urgent concern. Awareness is growing, and changes being made: the mayor of North Charleston has promised, for instance, to have all his police officers wear body cameras. Nationally, a recent Department of Justice report has demanded a comprehensive response to the culture of racism and undue violence that prevails in so many police departments across the country.
Meanwhile, Americans’ trust in the police has declined heavily over the past three decades – though the confidence gap between white and black Americans is as wide as ever.
But what really needs to change is the commonplace assumption that the police are to be believed until proven otherwise.
The evidence that has been assembled since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson paints a picture of a full-blown national law enforcement crisis, and the implicit trust placed in the police hides the increasingly authoritarian reality of how law is enforced on America’s streets.
The role of American police is rapidly changing. They are now asked less to protect citizens and more to participate in a militarised War on Drugs; they are also de facto tax collectors, tasked with collecting fines to make up for chronic budget shortfalls after decades of cuts to public funding.
Ironically, it is often exactly the same right-wing figures who cry foul at the encroaching threat of domestic authoritarianism who let the police off the hook – or even defend them.
The ultimate lesson of the North Charleston case is that we have to stop blindly believing the “official stories” told by the police. As long as we trust their accounts as a matter of course, acts such as these will continue with impunity. We have to question official accounts of violence at all levels – and not just after they’ve been caught red-handed on tape.