WASHINGTON — A white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., was charged with murder 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 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 on whether 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 Holder Jr. to cities around the country to try to improve police relations with minority neighborhoods.
North Charleston is South Carolina’s third-largest city, with a population of about 100,000. Blacks make up about 47 percent of residents, and whites account for about 37 percent. The city’s 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 Slager stopped the driver of a Mercedes-Benz with a broken taillight, according to police reports. Scott ran away, and Slager chased him into a grassy lot that abuts a muffler shop. The officer fired his Taser, an electronic stun gun, but it did not stop Scott, according to police reports.
Moments after the struggle, 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 Slager fired his Taser. Wires, which carry the electrical current from the stun gun, appear to be extending from Scott’s body as the two men tussle and 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 Slager draws his gun, the video shows. When the officer fires, 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 up something off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near 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 FBI and the Justice Department, which has opened a string of civil rights investigations into police departments under Holder, also are investigating.
The Supreme Court has held that an officer may use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that he “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
Slager served in the Coast Guard before joining the force five years ago, his lawyer said. 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.
The police chief of North Charleston did not return repeated calls.
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, the Charleston newspaper. He was arrested in 1987 on an assault and battery charge and convicted in 1991 of possession of a bludgeon, the newspaper reported.
Scott’s brother, Anthony, said he believed Scott had fled from the officer 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 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.”
Stewart said the coroner had told him that 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 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 Scott. The video shows that for several minutes after the shooting, Scott remained face down with his hands cuffed behind his back.
A second officer arrives, puts on blue medical gloves, and attends to 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.
Watch the video below. Caution: Contains graphic violence and language.