By Doug Porter
In the thirty-one days following release of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing report, an average of three people per day were killed by police in the United States, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
South Carolina Officer Michael Thomas Slager was charged with first-degree murder for the shooting death of Walter Scott yesterday after a video surfaced showing him firing eight shots into the back of a fleeing, unarmed man. The cop was white. The dead man was black. The incident started with a traffic stop for a broken tail light.
Initial news coverage based on police reports said “the dead man fought with an officer over his Taser before deadly force was employed.” For two days he and the North Charleston police were apparently unaware that a video of the entire incident existed. An all-too-familiar script was followed by both department and the local news media.
From the Charleston, SC Post And Courier:
A statement released by North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said a man ran on foot from the traffic stop and an officer deployed his department-issued Taser in an attempt to stop him.
That did not work, police said, and an altercation ensued as the men struggled over the device. Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer.
The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.
The police said responding officers performed CPR and delivered medical aid to Scott. He was destined to be just another of the two hundred plus incidents over the past five years in South Carolina where the discharge of a police firearm would be ruled justifiable by authorities.
Then an an eyewitness came forward with a video.
The story as it unfolded on the screen–first seen by Scott’s family because the eyewitness was afraid–told a much different story. Not only was Walter Scott, a 50 year old former
Navy Coast Guard Petty Officer, shot as he was running away; he was handcuffed as he lay dying. No CPR was given. The officer who shot Scott can be seen dropping his taser near the body, apparently trying to plant evidence.
From Huffington Post:
The shooting in North Charleston comes on the heels of several high-profile cases of police officers using deadly force against unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and New York. This is one of the few times the offending officer has been charged with murder.
“What if there was no video? What if there was no witness? Where would we be without that video,” Justin Bamberg said at a presser with the family on Tuesday night. Bamburg is one of the Scotts’ family attorneys and also represents South Carolina’s House District 90.
Family attorney L. Chris Stewart called the witness who recorded the video a “hero,” saying that video evidence disproved initial reports that Scott reached for the Slager’s Taser. Stewart added that the witness is working with investigators and may eventually come forward.
Were it not for the clarity of the video (there have been other videos in police shootings around the country where police have disputed the visual evidence) Walter Scott would be just another hashtag appearing on activist twitter feeds around the country. He would be just another victim, denigrated for crimes of poverty by pious pale-faced anchors.
Scott’s crime was a fear of being arrested for failure to pay child support.
From the Washington Post:
North Charleston, the third-largest city in the state, has a different demographic breakdown than the rest of South Carolina. Two-thirds of South Carolina residents are white, while North Charleston has more black residents (47 percent) than white residents (41 percent), according to the U.S. Census.
But the city’s police force does not reflect that breakdown, as four out of five North Charleston officers last year were white, according to the Post and Courier. The city’s police department announced in February that it would obtain 115 body cameras for its officers after obtaining $275,000 in state funding.
As the ACLU said in their report on last month’s police shootings:
Too many of this month’s victims fit a profile we know all too well – unarmed men of color, some of whom have psychiatric disabilities. Victims like Charly Keunang in Los Angeles, California; Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin; Anthony Hill in DeKalb County, Georgia; and Brandon Jones in Cleveland, Ohio; confirm that the problems with policing are national in scope.
This isn’t a problem concentrated in a few rogue police departments. Even those police departments with the best of intentions need reform. Take, for example, last week’s Department of Justice report that Philadelphia police shot 400 people – over 80 percent African-American – in seven years. This is in a city where the police commissioner is an author of the very same White House task force report calling for police reform.
And, oh yeah, the right wing is already raising money for the cop who shot Walter Scott.
— Bipartisan Report (@Bipartisanism) April 8, 2015
The California Version of Criminalizing Poverty
The Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri last month found courts and law enforcement systematically and purposefully taking money from the pockets of poor people—disproportionately from black people—to put into court coffers.
Now a lawyers group has released a report on California’s Traffic Courts indicating that the system is very much the same for poor people in the Golden State.
“Not Just a Ferguson Problem,” authored by the San Francisco Lawyers’Committee for Civil Rights says that there are over four million Californians who do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees.
Many of them are driving anyway, because without transportation they have no way to survive. And if they get caught, they incur even more debt and potentially jail time. It’s a vicious cycle, made all the worse because the state’s court system is dependent on the income from traffic citations.
From Think Progress:
When California state residents are issued a traffic citation, for offenses ranging from driving without a seat belt to vandalism, misplaced registration stickers, broken taillights, truancy, not officially changing a home address, littering, or sleeping on a sidewalk, they receive a $490 ticket. In response to the 2008 recession, the state raised the fine amount from its baseline of $100 by attaching additional statutory fees. When people don’t pay off tickets or appear in court to discuss the citations by an assigned deadline, they’re fined a $300 civil assessment fee and have their driver’s licenses suspended. Those who cannot pay $490 are therefore burdened by more debt.
To make matters worse, missing a deadline automatically bars people from appearing in court, until the entire sum is paid. Therefore, people whose licenses have been suspended cannot plead their innocence, learn about potential payment plans (including community service alternatives), or explain the reasons for why they didn’t pay on time….
And things aren’t looking too hopeful for a solution.
From the Los Angeles Times:
A 2014 bill to guarantee the right to a hearing for those who have missed an initial court appearance but are unable to pay in full stalled because it would have overwhelmed a strapped court system that has suffered $1 billion in cuts in recent years. A broader bill failed the previous year.
In his January budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a limited amnesty that would temporarily cut unpaid traffic fines and penalties in half in hopes of collecting revenue for two insolvent funds that support training for law enforcement.
But the Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended it be rejected, saying it is “unlikely to raise the amount of revenue required to address the shortfalls in the [programs], and could potentially negatively affect future collections.”
But Wait! There’s more!
The League of California Cities (LCC) is opposing a new statewide “Right to Rest” bill that would pre-empt local ordinances imposing fines and jail terms for homeless people over their use of public spaces for non-criminal activity.
A recent report by Berkeley Law’s Policy Advocacy Clinic (PAC) found more than 500 separate anti-homeless laws in a review of just 58 cities’ codes, concluding that California cities are twice as likely as other US cities to ban homeless people from sleeping in their cars.
The LCC opposition to the law is based on the premise, according letters being sent to California legislators, that it would undermine the basic definition of property rights that “are the foundation of our social order,” and grant special rights to anyone defined as homeless.
On This Day: 1911 – A total of 128 convict miners, leased to a coal company under the state’s shameful convict lease system, were killed in an explosion at the Banner coal mine outside Birmingham, Ala. The miners were mostly African-Americans jailed for minor offenses. 1987 – Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis resigned over remarks he had made. While on ABC’s “Nightline” Campanis said that blacks “may not have some of the necessities” to hold managerial jobs in major-league baseball. 2002 – Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play “Topdog/Underdog.”
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