Shooting video makes case for police body cams

The lawyer for the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man killed by a white police officer, asks a pertinent question.

“What if there was no video?”

Without the video taken by a witness, the officer’s story that he shot out of fear for his safety might have been accepted.

But there is a video, and by now it’s probably been seen by everyone who has even the slightest interest in the tragedy that unfolded April 4 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Recorded with a cellphone by a man who happened to be nearby, it clearly shows Officer Michael Slager firing eight times at a fleeing Scott, who had been pulled over in a traffic stop for a broken taillight.

Too many cases involving police force end up as “he said, he said.” And under most states’ laws, the officer often only has to express fear for his personal safety for a shooting to be ruled justified. The video clearly shows that wasn’t the case here.

Yes, Scott had jumped out of the car and started running. But that doesn’t justify use of deadly force, because there was no threat to Slager at the time of the shooting. Slager had Scott’s name, his car and a passenger still in the car. It wouldn’t have been hard to track him down at a later time.

Police and legal experts viewing the video agree that the shooting appears unjustified under established U.S. Supreme Court law. Officers are only supposed to shoot when life is endangered, not because an unarmed, nondangerous suspect might escape.

The video shows Slager fatally shooting Scott from a distance of about 15 to 20 feet, then apparently dropping something near the body, perhaps to support his claim that he feared for his safety because Scott had tried to grab a Taser from him.

If it weren’t for the video, that story might be the official line today. Instead, the police chief in North Charleston – who seems to have learned some valuable lessons from recent officer-involved shootings – acted swiftly once the video became public. Slager has been fired and charged with Scott’s murder, and the chief has announced plans to equip all of his officers with body cameras.

This case should give yet more impetus to the growing movement toward police body cams – not only to help get to the bottom of cases alleging use of excessive force but also to provide support for officers who legitimately act in self-defense.

The deadly shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, might not have resulted in riots and property destruction had the incident been caught on camera. And it’s also been shown that police departments whose officers wear body cameras have fewer complaints about use of force.

Many police departments are choosing not to invest in body cams because of concerns ranging from expense and public requests for footage to union opposition. Those concerns can and should be addressed. In the meantime, this tragedy should persuade police departments all over the country to again emphasize to officers when deadly force can be used and when it cannot.

Even if officers aren’t wearing body cams, they need to recognize that cellphones are ubiquitous today; more than 90 percent of American adults have one and 64 percent have a smartphone. That means most Americans have the capability of shooting a video like the one that contradicts Slager’s account of Scott’s death.

Just as motorists should always drive as if there were a police car behind them, officers should always conduct themselves in a way that assumes they’re being caught on camera. If only Slager had been operating on that assumption.