Commentary: How Many More Police Shootings Will It Take?

Keith Boykin

Commentary: How Many More Police Shootings Will It Take?

Keith Boykin remembers Walter Scott and other victims of officer-involved killings.

Published April 8, 2015

It's been eight months since Officer Darren Wilson gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and I spent part of Tuesday afternoon at the site of the shooting. Two memorials of teddy bears and flowers still remain guarded by orange pylons on Canfield Drive.

It was Election Day and the street was quiet but for the hum of passing vehicles. A woman on a bullhorn rode up and down the street encouraging residents to vote while a white police officer drove through the adjacent apartment complex in a white SUV.


Nearly 900 miles away in North Charleston, South Carolina, another white police officer was struggling to defend the shooting of another unarmed Black man after new video surfaced contradicting the officer's account of the fatal weekend encounter.

Officer Michael Slager was charged with murder on Tuesday in the wake of video evidence showing him shooting a fleeing 50-year-old Walter Scott, then calmly walking over to his victim, handcuffing him on the ground, and retrieving his taser so he could plant evidence at the scene of the shooting. Officer Slager never performed CPR on his dying victim while he lay face down on the ground.

Slager's police report claimed he feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun, but the video told a different story, as Slager was shown calmly firing at a man who was running away from him. All this for an alleged broken taillight on Scott's Mercedes-Benz.

We've seen this script too many times before. A white law enforcement official fatally shoots an unarmed African-American and claims his life was in danger. Then white law-and-order types rush to defend the cop and complain that the Black victim would never have been killed if he had simply cooperated with police.

Tell that to Levar Jones, the 35-year-old Black man in South Carolina who was shot repeatedly by a state trooper last year for simply complying with the officer's order to show him his identification. The truth is it doesn't matter if we're armed or unarmed, complying or resisting, educated or uneducated. We're still seen as suspicious in the eyes of the law.

Even running away from a police officer should not put your life in danger, as decades of judicial guidance have prohibited cops from shooting a fleeing suspect. "Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others," the Supreme Court ruled in 1985, "the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so."

The nation's highest court agreed with those who argued that "laws permitting police officers to use deadly force to apprehend unarmed, non-violent fleeing felony suspects actually do not protect citizens or law enforcement officers, do not deter crime or alleviate problems caused by crime, and do not improve the crime-fighting ability of law enforcement agencies." As the court said, "A police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead."

Walter Scott was a Coast Guard veteran and father of four. He was beyond the age of the young suspects who officers typically face on the streets. But age does not protect Black men from the police. Eric Garner was 43 when an NYPD officer choked him to death last summer and Ernest Satterwhite was 68 when he was shot and killed in South Carolina last year.

Scott's family observed that the police and the public would have believed Officer Slager's self-serving version of events if not for the eyewitness video that surfaced this week. True, but as we've seen with Garner, Tamir RiceJohn Crawford and others, even video evidence is not enough to convince many in our white-majority nation who have been conditioned to believe the police in cases against Blacks. How many more police shootings of unarmed African-Americans will it take before they wake up?

Back in Ferguson, residents elected two new African-Americans to the city council on Tuesday, but the local news last night featured a story on fired former Ferguson city clerk Mary Ann Twitty, who admitted to sending racist emails but denied she is in any way racist. Instead, she claims she's the victim of a smear campaign. "They ruined my life for the sake of what was going on in Ferguson," said Twitty. "I think it’s sickening."

Yes, of course, the real tragedy in Ferguson is not the murder of an unarmed Black teen. The tragedy is that a white city official lost a job. How much longer before Officer Slager in South Carolina makes the same claim? 

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Written by Keith Boykin


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