In 2012, the city of North Charleston, South Carolina, needed a new chief of police to replace Jon Zumalt, who was moving back to Kansas after eleven years on the job. During that time, the city’s crime rate, once one of the highest in the country, had fallen by nearly half, but some residents worried that the tactics that Zumalt and his colleagues had employed, such as aggressive traffic stops, were excessive. Others wondered whether, in a city that is almost half black, an African-American police chief would finally be appointed, but Mayor Keith Summey chose Eddie Driggers, a white former police officer and chaplain who happened to be his neighbor. “I don’t know Mr. Driggers from Adam’s housecat,” Ed Bryant, the head of the North Charleston N.A.A.C.P., told the Post Courier. Another association official said, “I don’t know the new guy, but I hope we will get lucky.”
They got to know Chief Driggers better at a press conference last Wednesday, when he and Mayor Summey took questions from reporters about the arrest of Officer Michael Slager, on charges of having murdered Walter Scott. The previous Saturday, Slager, who is white, had pulled over Scott, a fifty-year-old African-American, supposedly because a brake light on his car wasn’t working. A video from Slager’s dashboard camera shows him taking Scott’s license and, while he returns to his car to check it, Scott running out of view; a passenger remained in the car. Scott owed child support, and as a result there was an outstanding warrant in his name. There are sounds on the video of a pursuit. A twenty-three-year-old man named Feidin Santana, who was walking nearby, saw Slager and Scott struggling and heard the distinctive sound of a Taser, and filmed the ensuing scene with his phone camera.
That video shows Scott, who was unarmed, making another break for it, across a stretch of grass. The Supreme Court found, in 1985, that police do not have a right to shoot someone simply because he is fleeing. (That decision, Tennessee v. Garner, involved a black eighth grader who had stolen a purse and ten dollars from a house, and was shot while climbing a fence to get away.) Slager, under no apparent threat or duress, fires eight rounds from his pistol*. Scott is hit four times in the back and once in the ear. As he lies face down on the ground, Slager cuffs him. The officer jogs back to where they had been struggling, picks something up—it may have been the Taser—and drops it near Scott’s body. He then radios, “Shots fired and subject is down. He took my Taser.” A police-department incident report emphasized that Slager spoke these words just seconds after the confrontation, as if their immediacy were a sign of their honesty. Slager’s lawyer said that Scott had tried to “overpower” him, and so Slager was forced to shoot. At that point, Santana had not released the video—he has said that he feared possible retaliation and wanted to see if Slager would tell the truth. Then he gave it to Scott’s family, who made it public on Tuesday. Slager’s lawyer quit the case after seeing the footage.
At the press conference, Driggers said, “I was sickened by what I saw.” He and the mayor did not try to justify or even explain the shooting, deferring to state investigators. Instead, they talked about Scott and his family, whom they had visited earlier. “I got to meet a daddy who is in mourning, a mama who is in mourning, and we talked father to father,” Driggers said. “However you give respect to individuals, give them the respect that they deserve during this time.” Summey also used the word “respect” and called the Scotts, who had asked for calm, “wonderful,” “outstanding,” and “suffering.” (“We’re here to support them.”) Driggers said that his job was to protect “you—all of you.” More important, once he and Summey had seen the video, there had been no hesitation in charging Slager with murder and firing him from the force.
The mayor also said that he had ordered enough wearable cameras for every officer on the North Charleston force. Even protesters who had interrupted him about other issues, such as the lack of diversity in a department that is eighty per cent white, applauded that. Video has come to be seen as a near-panacea, although some privacy rules might be needed before turning every policeman into a roving video recorder. But cameras alone won’t solve the problem. In Cleveland, the death of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot by a police officer, was captured on video, but investigations in that case have progressed slowly. The choking of Eric Garner, on Staten Island, was taped, but no indictment followed. If North Charleston avoids becoming another Ferguson—a place where a police shooting exposes and accelerates a broader breakdown in civic trust—it will be due not just to the video but also to the manner in which Driggers and Summey responded to it.
Videos, like pictures, are effective only when the people looking at them are willing to really see what’s there. Photographs of the battered body of Emmett Till, a child murdered in Mississippi in 1955, galvanized public opinion after they were printed in Jet. Just a few years earlier, postcards of lynchings had been treated as souvenirs. The capacity for self-delusion, despite visual evidence, is great: last September, another South Carolina officer approached an African-American man at a gas station, asked for his license, and shot him when he reached for it. (The man, who called the officer “sir” even as he was sprawled on the ground, survived.) The officer then called in a report that was blatantly contradicted by video from his own dash cam.
New technology is reshaping the civic obligation of bearing witness. At the same time, the dramatic fall in crime rates demands a new relationship between the police and the community. Not all police departments have fully adjusted, some have done so badly, and others realize that they have much to learn. When Jon Zumalt, Driggers’s predecessor, spoke to the Post Courier about his career, he listed, among his chief regrets, his handling, early in his tenure, of the police shooting death of a black man named Asberry Wylder. Zumalt doubted not the use of force but the way that he had soured his dealings with the people he served by talking about the witnesses who contradicted his officers’ stories as if they were all fantasists or liars. It was, he said, “a rookie mistake.” ♦
*An earlier version of article called Slager’s gun a revolver.