Even Walter Scott’s family seems confused about why, exactly, the Justice Department is charging the cop caught on camera murdering him.
Going back to the civil rights era, the Justice Department has often been the hand of righteousness. When local officials would not act or a jury failed to render a reasonable verdict, Washington came calling.
It was the feds who took on the Klan, Jim Crow, and their morally revolting cousins. But the rule has been that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division takes a case to a federal grand jury only after local systems have failed.
So when DOJ lawyers this week announced a federal indictment on a litany of charges against Michael Slager, a since-fired member of the North Charleston Police Department already facing murder charges in South Carolina in the shooting death of an unarmed black man, the questions became: Why here, why in this case, and why now?
At a fundamental level, African Americans often see the DOJ as their last and best hope when fairness seems out of reach at home. Social justice activists and national civil rights leaders have routinely demanded that federal officials weigh in—either through the indictment of an individual or an investigation into an entire police force or local government—when there is a lack of confidence.
This seems different. While no criminal prosecutor can guarantee a conviction, the events that unfolded last April 2015 were captured on videotape.
Slager is seen chasing Walter Scott through an auto parts store parking lot, along a narrow side street and across an open field. As the 50-year-old father of four approaches an old tree, a few feet away from a chain link fence, Slager calmly raises his .45 caliber pistol and fires eight rounds. Scott, shot five times in the back, died at the scene, his blood spilling over the clumps of grass and dirt. First responders found him there, face down, with a Taser by his side.
Slager, unaware the execution had been filmed, told investigators Scott had attacked him, attempted to take his service weapon and tried to hit him with the department-issued 50,000 volt stun gun.
All of it was a lie, it’s clear from the footage, shot by 23-year-old Feidin Santana on his cellphone.
When he released the video days later, it made national headlines and Slager was indicted on state murder charges. The shots came from at least 15 feet away. Slager stood coolly on a concrete footpath and methodically aimed his weapon as if shooting as a paper target at a firing range. In fact, Scott never had possession of the Taser. You can see Slager tossing it next to Scott’s lifeless body after murdering him.
As the video circulated, there was little doubt that the officer involved would face criminal prosecution. He was not under any immediate threat of bodily harm nor was there any indication that the 50-year-old father was armed.
Public officials, including police chief Eddie Driggers and prosecutor Scarlett Wilson, have moved aggressively since viewing the cellphone footage and dash cam video taken from Slager’s squad car. For them, there is no question about Slager’s guilt—that he lied to his supervisors, that Slager handcuffed Scott as he bled to death and planted evidence near his lifeless body.
Justice has not failed in the Slager case. In fact, the prosecution remains in full swing. It must also be said that there were few if any voices calling for a federal investigation or charges because, presumably, people trust that there is a strong local case moving forward.
Thus, there are questions as to why the DOJ is getting involved now.
Do they somehow see the local case as weak? Or are they simply combatting the mounting criticisms that they have been an unreliable guardian in recent years?
In similar high-profile cases involving a white officer and an unarmed black male suspect, the Justice Department declined to prosecute. Former Ferguson officer Darren Wilson was exonerated after a controversial federal investigation, even as the feds also determined that the department routinely committed human-rights abuses. Wilson, who later resigned, never faced a jury of his peers.
New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo is still in uniform and, like Wilson, may never be prosecuted. Despite compelling video evidence that shows Pantaleo fatally choking Eric Garner—who did nothing to justify an officer placing a hand on him, let alone executing a police department-banned chokehold—he escaped a local indictment and has yet to face a single federal charge.
In both cases, activists wondered if the Justice Department was being guided by the law or by the tense political environment. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has answered those questions by pointing to the tough standard for bringing federal charges. We see fewer indictments, he contended in the final months of his tenure, because the bar is too high. Others inside the Justice Department argue that the civil rights division’s resources are so slim that it’s been forced to be increasingly selective about which cases to take to a grand jury.
Thus the Slager case, brought by Holder’s successor as AG, Loretta Lynch, appeared to be an unguarded lay up taken by a department that spends more time dribbling than shooting the ball.
Scattered and tepid applause accompanied the Slager indictment and much of it came from the Scott family. But even their attorney seemed to note the peculiar nature of federal indictment announced by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles of the District of South Carolina.
“Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, all of them, every significant case the Justice Department has investigated and no indictments came down. This is the first time that an indictment has come down in a national case,” Chris Stewart, an attorney for the Scott family, told The Washington Post.
That’s a polite way of asking why the killers of those unarmed men haven’t been charged by the feds. Or, for that matter, the six Baltimore police officers awaiting or on trial in the death of Freddie Gray.
If the Justice Department does not have mettle or the resources to take on tough cases, where can justice be found?