What if Slager Had Been Wearing a Body Camera?

At the press conference this week about officer Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said that he had ordered an additional 150 police body cameras. According to Summey, every officer in the North Charleston Police Department will be outfitted with a body camera once they have been trained to use it and a body camera policy has been written. In February, the city announced that it would spend $85,000 of a $275,000 federal grant on 115 body cameras.

It is, of course, impossible to know how Slager would have behaved if he had been wearing a body camera during his encounter with Scott. But it is worth conducting the thought experiment nonetheless. 

Let’s consider footage of the incident captured by Feidin Santana, a bystander. In the video, Scott flees a scuffle with Slager following a routine taillight traffic stop. There appear to be Taser barbs attached to Scott as he runs away from Slager, who fires eight rounds as him while standing flat-footed. Scott falls about 15–20 feet from Slager after the eighth round is fired. (The coroner reportedly told one of Scott’s family lawyers that five of those rounds hit Scott.) Slager then handcuffs Scott, returns to where the scuffle took place, picks up an object, and drops that object near Scott.

Police reports state that officers performed CPR on Scott, yet the footage shows no officers performing CPR. The video does show Scott receiving some medical attention, but this is several minutes after the shooting and does not include CPR. 

It is hard to imagine that if Slager had been wearing an operating body camera that he would have behaved the way he did. Knowing that first-person footage of the incident would be seen by investigators, would Slager have planted an object–widely believed to be his Taser–near Scott after the shooting? Would Slager, a CPR-certified officer, have left Scott without medical attention? Would he have claimed that he felt threatened when he fired eight rounds at a fleeing 50-year-old man? Would he have even fired his weapon at all?

Even if the answer to each of those questions is “yes,” a body camera would have provided officials with more information than written police reports.

Thankfully, Santana was at the scene of Scott and Slager’s scuffle and provided video showing that police reports of the killing presented an inaccurate account of what happened. But the public should not have to rely on conscientious citizens with cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place at the right time to ensure that incidences of police misconduct are accurately reported.