Walter Scott Shooting: Reformers See Hope in City's Swift Response

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/ Source: NBC News
By Jon Schuppe

Among the many remarkable things about the shooting of an apparently unarmed black man by a white police officer in South Carolina was the speed with which the officer was arrested for murder — and how quickly local authorities admitted that they had a problem.

"It goes to say how we work as a community," Mayor Keith Summey said Tuesday, announcing the arrest at a press conference in which the police chief, Eddie Driggers, nearly broke down into tears. "When you're wrong, you're wrong, 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."

Laurie Robinson saw it, and was impressed. She is the co-chair of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, created amid the civil unrest that followed a white police officer's killing of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri.

Last month, Robinson's panel proposed a set of sweeping reforms aimed at rebuilding trust between cops and the public. Among the recommendations was swifter, and more candid, response to cases of alleged police misconduct.

"The way in which the mayor stepped forward to talk bluntly to the community about what he saw as happening at that encounter exactly mirrored what our task force talked about," Robinson, a criminology professor at George Mason University, told NBC News. "The importance of open discussion with the community, stepping forward quickly and speaking transparently and non-defensively about what had occurred."

North Charleston's response stands in sharp contrast to the response in Ferguson, and in many other cities that have erupted over police shootings in recent months, reform advocates say. Some take it as potential evidence that law enforcement authorities around the country are absorbing the lessons, and taking the task force's proposals to heart.

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"I think the lesson that every cop and mayor and police chief in the United States should have learned from the recent past events is if you create a void in the public understanding of a critical incident like this, then people will fill the void with their own narrative based on what they hear," said Jim Bueermann, a former police chief in Redlands, California, who now runs the nonprofit Police Foundation. "So coming out with a definitive statement as quickly as possible is critical."

But the response in North Charleston was not solely driven by a desire for reform. There was also an extraordinary piece of evidence: a clear video of the Saturday morning encounter between Officer Michael Slager and Walter Scott. Recorded by a witness, the video shows Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran away. The video didn't surface until Tuesday, and within hours state investigators arrested Slager for murder.

That hardly ever happens to a police officer, said Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

"It's odd that they made an arrest this quickly, and also that they made an arrest before getting an indictment," Stoughton said.

Typically, prosecutors like to wait as long as they can before formally charging someone with murder, said David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The speedy charge on this has to mean that the people making those decisions believe they have everything they need to make their case," Kennedy said.

Thom Berry, a spokesman for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the shooting, said the decision to charge and arrest Slager occurred soon after the video surfaced on Tuesday. An arrest warrant was being drafted as investigators were interviewing the officer, Berry said. "It all happened within a matter of hours."

Kennedy, whose organization is helping police departments around the country improve their relationships with high-crime communities, said that the entire set of circumstances make the North Charleston case unprecedented.

Without the video, it's hard to say that the response would have been the same.

But Kennedy said the signs are encouraging.

'"There's a lot going on here," he said. "There's this historical moment the country has been in the last year or so, the soul searching. It's the very clear errors that have been made in a lot of previous situations. It's the lessons learned from that and the the guidance coming from places like the task force. And the police are paying a lot of attention."