A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder on Tuesday after a video surfaced showing him shooting in the back and killing an apparently unarmed black man while the man ran away.
The officer, Michael T. Slager, 33, said he had feared for his life because the man had taken his stun gun in a scuffle after a traffic stop on Saturday. A video, however, shows the officer firing eight times as the man, Walter L. Scott, 50, fled. The North Charleston mayor announced the state charges at a news conference Tuesday evening.
The shooting came on the heels of high-profile instances of police officers’ using lethal force in New York, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. The deaths have set off a national debate over whether the police are too quick to use force, particularly in cases involving black men.
A White House task force has recommended a host of changes to the nation’s police policies, and President Obama sent Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to cities around the country to try to improve police relations with minority neighborhoods.
Office Michael T. Slager
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. African-Americans make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The Police Department is about 80 percent white, according to data collected by the Justice Department in 2007, the most recent period available.
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong,” Mayor Keith Summey said during the news conference. “And if you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision.”
The shooting unfolded after Officer Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. Mr. Scott ran away, and Officer Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. He fired his taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Mr. Scott, according to police reports.
Moments after the struggle, Officer Slager reported on his radio: “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser,” according to police reports.
But the video, which was taken by a bystander and provided to The New York Times by the Scott family’s lawyer, presents a different account. The video begins in the vacant lot, apparently moments after Officer Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Mr. Scott’s body as the two men tussle and Mr. Scott turns to run.
Something — it is not clear whether it is the stun gun — is either tossed or knocked to the ground behind the two men, and Officer Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, Mr. Scott appears to be 15 to 20 feet away and fleeing. He falls after the last of eight shots.
The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the state’s criminal investigative body, has begun an inquiry into the shooting. The F.B.I. and the Justice Department, which has opened a string of civil rights investigations into police departments under Mr. Holder, is also investigating.
For several minutes after the shooting, Walter L. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back.
The Supreme Court has held that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
Officer Slager served in the Coast Guard before joining the force five years ago, his lawyer said. The police chief of North Charleston did not return repeated calls. Because police departments are not required to release data on how often officers use force, it was not immediately clear how often police shootings occurred in North Charleston, a working-class community adjacent to the tourist destination of Charleston.
Mr. Scott had been arrested about 10 times, mostly for failing to pay child support or show up for court hearings, according to the Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston. He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon, the newspaper reported. Mr. Scott’s brother, Anthony, said he believed Mr. Scott had fled from the police on Saturday because he owed child support.
“He has four children; he doesn’t have some type of big violent past or arrest record,” said Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Mr. Scott’s family. “He had a job; he was engaged. He had back child support and didn’t want to go to jail for back child support.”
Mr. Stewart said the coroner had told him that Mr. Scott was struck five times — three times in the back, once in the upper buttocks and once in the ear — with at least one bullet entering his heart. It is not clear whether Mr. Scott died immediately. (The coroner’s office declined to make the report available to The Times.)
Police reports say that officers performed CPR and delivered first aid to Mr. Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Mr. Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves and attends to Mr. Scott, but is not shown performing CPR. As sirens wail in the background, a third officer later arrives, apparently with a medical kit, but is also not seen performing CPR.
The debate over police use of force has been propelled in part by videos like the one in South Carolina. In January, prosecutors in Albuquerque charged two police officers with murder for shooting a homeless man in a confrontation that was captured by an officer’s body camera. Federal prosecutors are investigating the death of Eric Garner who died last year in Staten Island after a police officer put him in a chokehold, an episode that a bystander captured on video. A video taken in Cleveland shows the police shooting a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, who was carrying a fake gun in a park. A White House policing panel recommended that police departments put more cameras on their officers.
Mr. Scott’s brother said his mother had called him on Saturday, telling him that his brother had been shot by a Taser after a traffic stop. “You may need to go over there and see what’s going on,” he said his mother told him. When he arrived at the scene of the shooting, officers told him that his brother was dead, but he said they had no explanation for why. “This just doesn’t sound right,” he said in an interview. “How do you lose your life at a traffic stop?”
Anthony Scott said he last saw his brother three weeks ago at a family oyster roast. “We hadn’t hung out like that in such a long time,” Mr. Scott said. “He kept on saying over and over again how great it was.”
At the roast, Mr. Scott got to do two of the things he enjoyed most: tell jokes and dance. When one of Mr. Scott’s favorite songs was played, he got excited. “He jumped up and said, ‘That’s my song,’ and he danced like never before,” his brother said.