A Shooting in South Carolina

While the police are supposed to protect and serve, recent incidents have raised grave concerns about policing in America. I am, of course, referring to the killing of unarmed black men by white police officers. In the most recent incident Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager shot Walter Lamer Scott to death after what should have been a routine traffic stop. What makes this case unusual is that there is video of the shooting. While the video does not show what happened before Scott started to flee, it clearly shows that Scott is no threat to Slager: he is unarmed and running away. Police are not allowed to shoot a suspect merely for fleeing. The video also show Slager dropping an object by Scott’s body—it appears to be Slager’s Taser. When Slager called in the incident, he described it as a justifiable shooting: Scott grabbed his Taser and he had to use his service weapon. Obviously Slager was unaware that he was being recorded as he shot the fleeing Scott.

Since I am friends with people who are ex-law enforcement (retired or moved on to other careers) I have reason to believe that the majority of officers would not engage in such behavior. As such, I will not engage in a sweeping condemnation of police—this would be both unjust and unfounded. However, this incident does raise many concerns about policing in the United States.

As noted above, what makes this incident unusual is not that a situation involving a black man and white officer escalated. It is also not very unusual that a black man was shot by a police officer. What is unusual is that the incident was videotaped and this allowed the public to see what really happened—as opposed to what was claimed by the officer. If the incident had not been recorded, this most likely would have gone down as the all-too-common scenario of a suspect attacking a police officer and being shot in self-defense. The tape, however, has transformed it from the usual to the unusual: a police officer being charged with murder for shooting a suspect.

Since I teach critical thinking, I am well aware that the story of one incident, however vivid, is but an anecdote. I am also well aware that to generalize broadly from one such incident is to commit the fallacy of hasty generalization. That said, the videotape does provide legitimate grounds for being suspicious of other incidents in which suspects have been shot while (allegedly) trying to attack an officer. Since we know that it has happened, we clearly know that it can happen. The obvious and rather important concern is the extent to which this sort of thing has happened. That is, what needs to be determined is the extent to which officers have engaged in legitimate self-defense and to what extent have officers engaged in murder.

This videotape shows, rather dramatically, that requiring police to use body cameras is a good idea—at least from the standpoint of those who believe in justice. People are, obviously enough somewhat less likely to act badly if they know they are being recorded. There is also the fact that there would be clear evidence of any misdeeds. The cameras would also benefit officers: such video evidence would also show when the use of force was legitimate, thus helping to reduce suspicions. As it stands, we know that at least one police officer shot down a fleeing suspect who presented no threat. This, naturally enough, motivates suspicion about all shootings (and rightly so). The regular use of body cameras could be one small contribution to addressing legitimate questions about use of force incidents.

What is also usual about this incident is that there has been a focus on the fact that Scott had a criminal record and legal troubles involving child support. This is presumably intended to show that Scott was no angel and perhaps to suggest that the shooting was, in some manner, justified. Or, at the very least, not as bad as one might think. After all, the person killed was a criminal, right? However, Scott’s background has no relevance in this incident: his having legal troubles in the past in no manner justifies the shooting.

What was also usual was the reaction of Bill O’Reilly and some of the other fine folks at Fox, which I learned about from Professor Don Hubin’s reaction and criticism. Rather than focusing on the awfulness of the killing and what it suggests about other similar incidents, O’Reilly’s main worry seems to be that some people might use the killing to “further inflame racial tensions” and he adds that “there doesn’t seem to be, as some would have you believe, that police are trying to hunt down black men and take their lives.” While this is not a claim that has been seriously put forth, O’Reilly endeavors to “prove” his claim by engaging in a clever misleading comparison. He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.” While this shows that police kill more whites than blacks, the comparison is misleading because O’Reilly leaves out a critical piece of information: the population is about 77% white and about 13% black. This, obviously enough, sheds a rather different light on O’Reilly’s statistics: they are accurate, yet misleading.

Naturally, it might be countered that blacks commit more crimes than whites and thus it is no surprise that they get shot more often (when adjusting for inflation) than whites. After all, one might point out, Scott did have a criminal record. This reply has a certain irony to it. After all, people who claim that blacks are arrested (and shot) at a disproportionate level claim that the police are more likely to arrest blacks than whites and focus more on policing blacks. As evidence that blacks commit more crimes, people point to the fact that blacks are more likely (adjusting for proportions) than whites to be arrested. While one would obviously expect more blacks to be arrested in they committed more crimes (proportionally), to assume what is in doubt (that policing is fair) as evidence that it should not be doubted seems to involve reasoning in a circle.

O’Reilly also raised a stock defense for when bad thing are done: “You can’t … you can’t be a perfect system. There are going to be bad police officers; they’re going to make mistakes; um .. and then the mistakes are going to be on national television.” O’Reilly engages in what seems to be a perfectionist fallacy: the system cannot be perfect (which is true), therefore (it seems) we should not overly concerned that this could be evidence of systematic problems. Or perhaps he just means that in an imperfect system one must expect mistakes such as an officer shooting a fleeing suspect to death. O’Reilly also seems rather concerned that the mistakes will be on television—perhaps his concern is, as I myself noted, that people will fall victim to a hasty generalization from the misleading vividness of the incident. That would be a fair point. However, the message O’Reilly seems to be conveying is that this incident is (as per the usual Fox line) an isolated one that does not indicate a systemic problem. Despite the fact that these “isolated” incidents happen with terrible regularity.

I will close by noting that my objective is not to attack the police. Rather, my concern is that the justice system is just—that is rather important to me. It should also be important to all Americans—after all, most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.

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  1. I live less than an hour from where this happened. =\ From what I understand, the officer is being charged with murder.

  2. My assumption:
    The officer should not have shot at a fleeing person who was no danger to himself or others.
    If I walk through Central Park at night carrying wads of cash in each hand I might be mugged.
    If I were.mugged in that circumstance it would be against the law.
    However, I would bear some responsibility for the mugging. How much? 10%?..100%? Somewhere inbetween, I guess…
    Likewise, merely for running away the victim bears some responsibility for this illegal, irresponsible act.

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    It is inappropriate to discuss the ethics of a current legal case in a philosophy blog. For one reason, an accused person has the right to innocence until proven guilty. Trial by media is not as ethical solution to problems.

  4. Dennis S: Is it inappropriate to discuss the ‘ethics’ of a current legal case at home, or at the office, or while on the bus to Wabash? Why is it inappropriate on a philosophy blog? what about on television?

  5. Erik,

    That is also what I heard.

  6. MEK MEK,

    As you note, it could be claimed that had he not run, he would not have been shot. Just as if you had not walked with wads of cash, you would not have been mugged. So, in both cases the person could be claimed to have a causal role in the incident. While I would say that carrying wads of cash openly is a bad idea and running from a cop is also (usually) a bad idea, neither running nor carrying cash justifies the response.

  7. Dennis Sceviour,

    I don’t claim that the officer is legally guilty of murder. As you say, that is a matter for the court and he is assumed innocent until proven guilty. What is clearly indisputable is that he shot a fleeing man in the back when that man presented no threat. The ethics of the matter seem clear, unless there is some vital piece of information that no one has mentioned which would radically change how we should look at the situation.

  8. Dennis Sceviour

    MEK MEK,
    Another reason is that this is an open public blog, not a private discussion group. The discussion of current case in a philosophy blog could affect a judicial proceeding.

    What about television? Some stations will not discuss it for their own reasons.

  9. Dennis Sceviour

    The evidence is disputable and that is the task of the court to determine. You could destroy someone with what you print, and philosophers should have more responsibility towards this. That is the meaning of media ethics. You do not yet have the permission of the party, or the family of the victim to discuss this matter.

  10. We know blacks commit more crimes independent of arrests, see the UCR and NCVS data, as well as homicide occurrences.

  11. ” He notes that “In 2012, last stats available, 123 blacks were killed by police 326 whites were killed.””

    It would be interesting to know where O’Reilly gets those figures. There isn’t an official national database of deaths due to interactions with the police. The local police forces in general make it difficult to find out how many people have died at their hands.

    The total he gives for 2012 is 449. The website Killedbypolice.net , a register of news stories, is giving the tally as 328, and it’s just April. Plus the fact that a death like Eric Garner’s would not have been reported as a police killing, had there not been a video recording. O’Reilly’s figure, is on the low side.

    One of the most chilling aspects of the tape of Slager. Is that he seems less troubled than if he’d just shot a dog.

  12. s. wallerstein

    Do blacks commit more crimes or do they, being poorer and spending more time on the streets, commit more street crimes?

    There is a whole lot of undetected white collar crimes in all societies, insurance fraud, cheating on taxes, insider trading, etc., committed by seemingly respectable so-called pillars of societies that nobody generally notices.

  13. Dennis Sceviour

    “For one reason, an accused person has the right to innocence until proven guilty”

    Dennis, the issue is, there’s literally a torrent of these videos coming out, where the police act as judge, jury and executioner. From the video we’ve scene, Slager would apparently have a complete disregard for the principle of innocent until proven guilty.

  14. Dennis Sceviour,

    While I would like to believe my posts shape opinions all over the world, I doubt what I write would influence a jury. Also, in the US the jury is vetted to make sure they do not know about the case and are unbiased.

    Also, the matter is (as others have said) all over the US news with the media personalities weighing in on it-I am, at most, but a tiny whisper in that vast hurricane.

  15. Dennis Sceviour,

    Thanks to freedom of the press, I don’t need permission. Harsh, but true.

    But, I am very careful to avoid anything that could have a chance of wrongfully destroying someone.

  16. C. Van Carter,

    As you note, there is evidence that blacks do commit more crimes. However, there is also the concern that blacks are generally treated very differently by the criminal justice system.

  17. JMRC,

    Good point. As you note, we do not really know how many people are killed by police each year.

    True, Slager is disturbingly calm throughout the whole process.

  18. Dennis Sceviour

    Permission is not currently a legal requirement; it is an ethical consideration – which you should consider. It would have been better to discuss the Zimmerman case since it is not current.

  19. The Zimmerman case is completely different. Zimmerman was not a police officer.

  20. Dennis Sceviour,

    In this case, I do not see a compelling reason to get permission to discuss the ethics of the matter. I am not revealing any private information (all this information is already public and there is obviously no expectation of privacy here).

    But, I am interested in what sort of moral argument you would make as to why it is wrong of me to write about this subject.

  21. Dennis Sceviour – With all due respect the idea that we should not discuss current events is nothing less than perverse. I would even suggest we have a duty to discuss them. Only the jury has a responsibility to stay away from such public discussions.

    The thing is I think the cop has a reasonable chance of getting of on the murder charge. If he had not moved the taser I would say he had a good chance. All he would have had to do is claim he thought the suspect still had the taser.

  22. One thing that is rarely brought up is the responsibility of those of us who are stopped by the police to act in accord with normal, everyday courtesy and to allow the police to do their duty.

    Why argue with the police when you cannot win anyway? …If I’m going to get a ticket there’s little chance that I can talk my way out of it. If I am going to be arrested, how can I prevent the arrest by argument or running away?

    Police have guns and may use them, whether moral, legal or not.

    Likewise, when accosted by armed robbers I do not argue or run away. I know they have the “drop” on me, and I act accordingly.I give them the money or the wallet, or whatever it is that they ask for…

    Then I go home, happy that I was so smart to come out alive and unhurt.

  23. MEK MEK,

    You are right-the wise thing to do is to stay calm. When I was doing my firearm training, some of us were talking to SWAT guy teaching the course about this matter. Like anyone else, police will react to hostility and escalation generally makes things worse. This is not to say that citizens should just roll over for the cops, just that the smart thing to do is, as you say, keep in mind that escalation always goes badly.

    But, of course, the police also have an obligation to keep the situation under control. After all, they are supposed to be trained professionals in their job, so more of a burden of responsibility falls on them. Plus, they have guns.

  24. Dennis Sceviour

    A Moral Argument Against Writing an Article on a Shooting in South Carolina

    It is difficult to show. First, there does not seem to be any moral argument presented in the article. It is a snapshot of media reports. The uninspiring conclusion is not a moral argument: “…most of us pledged allegiance to a nation that offers liberty and justice to all.” I have never understood a pledge of “liberty and justice to all.” Liberty and justice are contradictions in terms. However, the absence of a moral argument in the article does not demonstrate a moral argument to not write about the subject.

    It is inappropriate to discuss the ethics of a current legal case in a philosophy blog. For one reason, an accused person has the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. Trial by media is historically a poor solution to problems. Another reason is that this is an open public blog, not a private discussion group. The discussion of a current case in a philosophy blog could affect a judicial proceeding.

    Evidence is disputable and that is the task of the court to determine. The media can destroy someone with the printed word, and philosophers should have more responsibility towards this. That is the meaning of media ethics. There is no permission of the party, or the family of the victim to discuss this matter. Permission is not a legal requirement; it is an ethical consideration.

    Some of the commentators have shown a desire to discuss moral difficulties including black crime statistics, a torrent of these videos coming out, and where the police act as judge, jury and executioner. The article supplies no moral reasoning to interpret these issues. They do need addressing in a general theory of police ethics, but there is no such article in this blog site. However again, the absence of moral reasoning in the article does not demonstrate a moral argument to not write about the subject.

    Slager is not a private citizen. He is a paid representative of the public and thus forfeits any privacy from scrutiny. Thus, the article passes the test for freedom of speech towards the actions of a public representative, and again this does not demonstrate a moral argument to not write about the subject.

    One does not need to see any video to see all of this.

    A moral issue being tested is whether anyone did something wrong. A person was shot but that might not make it wrong regardless of the precision of the facts, and independent of the guilty conscience of a person. The task of the jury is to determine facts and find guilt. Some jury proceedings disregard finding wrong (utilitarian theory for example), and leave this to the task of the prosecutor and judge if they are inclined, although this may vary from State to State. The finding of something wrong is a moral issue and this is where philosophy could shine given the opportunity.

    It is difficult to find Slager did anything wrong. Someone gave him a gun with the expectations it would be used. Someone paid him money to attack people. Like Zimmerman, Slager was just doing his job. However the problem may be defined, if Slager is destroyed another will replace him. Slager is irrelevant from the point of view of a moral discussion.

    The issue is who is the “Someone” putting him in this position? Who is the sacrificing mastermind? That question should be addressed in a general inquiry on police ethics without dragging a current case into the picture. Simply put, there is no reason to discuss a shooting in South Carolina.

  25. “But, of course, the police also have an obligation to keep the situation under control. After all, they are supposed to be trained professionals in their job, so more of a burden of responsibility falls on them. Plus, they have guns.”

    Yeah, last year in England the police did not kill a single person. There were only three gun fire incidents. So unless Americans are a special class of hard core criminal asshole then that should show where the burden of responsibility falls.

  26. ppnl,

    “Yeah, last year in England the police did not kill a single person. There were only three gun fire incidents. So unless Americans are a special class of hard core criminal asshole then that should show where the burden of responsibility falls.”

    Although the actual figure is fuzzy, it would be fair to say that the American police kill more people in a single year, than the British police have killed in the entire 20th century. I do not know the figure for how many people the American police killed in the 20th century. But it’s probably a number that would make the word genocide pop into mind.

    There’s something wrong throughout the institution. Institutions have a problem of developing wrongness and then transmitting it not only throughout the institution, but through generations of the institution. The lethality of the American police force could be due to its’ early form of defending the pales from native attacks. (That’s just something I’ve heard Chomsky say in a public appearance he recently did with Lawrence Krauss).

    When you dig into the figures to see who they’re killing the most of, there is an apparent racial bias, but dig further and the estimate is that as much as more than half of the people killed by police, have mental health issues.

    The most common difficult situation the British police have to deal with, isn’t armed robbers or criminals (taking advantage of the fact that police are largely unarmed), it’s people with mental health problems having very public break downs. These events rarely end in fatalities. In the American instance there appears to be an ideological difference, where many of these episodes end in executions.

    Is the ideological problem race related. Well, just as it happens there exists a place that is useful for a comparative analysis; Maine; where you could probably fit the entire ethnic minority population in a reasonably sized hotel ballroom. And unfortunately, the police of the state of Maine alone, appear to have killed more people in their history than the combined police related deaths of England, Scotland and Wales.

    An article worth reading is a Portland Press Herald feature from 2012. http://www.pressherald.com/interactive/maine_police_deadly_force_series_day_2/

    You can read it and judge for yourself. There you’ll find the interesting story of Captain O’Leary of the Brunswick police, felt he had no other option but to use lethal force in a conformation with a knife wielding man…who was confined to a wheelchair. It would be my opinion that the appropriate tool to use in a confrontation with a knife wielding man in a wheelchair, would be a sweeping brush. There are people who would defend O’Leary (O’Leary himself, I would imagine), with “but you weren’t there, you don’t know how you would have reacted”…..I would have used a sweeping brush; it would not have been a pretty sight, but the event would have ended without fatality.

    The Press Herald have an article on the event. O’Leary’s defence is frankly absurd. http://www.pressherald.com/2012/12/09/shoot-after-trigger-pulled-officers-life-engulfed-in-turmoil/

  27. s. wallerstein

    The U.S. police are special.

    Here’s a TV video where Chilean police (Carabineros), not generally famous for their gentleness and who carry firearms, try to disarm a mentally-ill person with a knife with the result that one policeman is seriously wounded.

  28. Question: what made Freddy Gray run away from three policemen when he was almost in custody? What made him believe that he could escape from three policemen? Did he believe he had superhuman powers? Did he think that the police would allow him to run off without chasing him?
    What are the Stats on such getaways?

  29. MEK MEK,

    “Question: what made Freddy Gray run away from three policemen when he was almost in custody?”

    It’s unclear what happened to Freddy Gray. The police involved have been suspended, as their report of the event did not account for his severe injuries. He was very severely injured.

    Why did he run? The Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle was writing in the Guardian the other day, on the lack of understanding of history of Americans and English people. He put it, many white Americans see black Americans as criminals. But when you look at the history you see, that black Americans were stolen from their homelands in Africa, forced to work as slaves, then denied a fair share in the wealth they created right up to the present. And white people are surprised that black people run away.

    Freddie Gray likely ran from the police for no other reason than he was afraid of them. Why would he be afraid of the police? Because at this moment in time, it’s a major international news story, bodycam footage of a police officer not shooting someone to death. Gray probably ran because he feared for his life…..It’s not likely the Baltimore police were trying to execute him, but they were trying to injure him. And those injuries, had he survived would have confined him to a wheelchair for life.

    MEK MEK, if you saw a gang of killer thugs approaching, would you run?

    And these people are thugs.

    Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations. Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson.

  30. s. wallerstein


    The Chomksy-Krauss conversation which you mention above is well worth listening to. Thank you for pointing it out.

  31. Dennis Sceviour,

    How are justice and liberty contradictory?

    Your argument seems to rest on the assumption that this post will unjustly sway the jury, thus denying the officer a fair trial. While I would certainly like to think that my writing has great power, the reality is that it is unlikely that anyone on the jury will even have read the post. Even if, against vast odds, a jury member had read the post, it seems incredibly unlikely that the post would cause them to unfairly and unjustly rule against the officer. As such, I do not believe that my post could do any unwarranted harm to the officer.

    The police are given guns with the expectation they will only use them when necessary and do so within the constraints of the law. Police are also not supposed to be paid to attack people, but to protect and serve. But, if you were right and cops are really armed with the expectation they will shoot people and are paid to attack people, then there is a massive problem here.

  32. I have heard black people who are apparantly typical of the sensible, responsible middle class, describe their efforts to explain to their children how to behave when encountered by police. This is, on the face of it, a good idea.

    But do not white people also explain to their children how to behave when confronted by authority?

    It is not extraordinary to explain to children proper behavior in various social situations whether black or white.

  33. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike LaBossiere asked, “How are justice and liberty contradictory?”


    This debate has been dragging on for five years. Which part is failing to be communicated? I have posted over one hundred pages of material in the commentary to your articles, much of it directly or indirectly addressing this question. Perhaps this is a waste of time and my work here is complete. On the other hand, there are new readers who may want to start from the beginning on the definitions of justice and liberty.

  34. s. wallerstein

    It seems to depend on how one defines “freedom” and “justice”.

    If “freedom” means an “absence of political constraint”, that is, pure negative freedom, then one can imagine a free society which is very unjust in the sense that might makes right, more or less a Hobbesian state of nature.

    If one has a more political definition of “freedom”, as meaning that everyone has basic political, civil and social rights, for example, the freedom to elect one’s government, freedom of speech, freedom to have a decent education, etc., then it seems that a just society, a society of rights, is a free society.

  35. Dennis Sceviour

    s. wallerstein,
    Thank you for taking a reflective moment on these definitions.

    Mill’s Harm Principle, that actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals, has been considered a satisfactory definition of freedom. Even if it is not conclusive, the definition can be argued by reason. The definition of justice has changed little since Plato.

  36. s. wallerstein


    As you probably know, philosophers distinguish between negative and positive liberty. Mill is generally considered as a proponent of negative liberty. Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia article on this topic.

    I don’t recall how Plato defined justice. Could you link to it? Thanks.

  37. Dennis Sceviour

    s. wallerstein,

    No, I am not familiar with Negative and Positive Liberty. The definition of “Negative liberty is the absence of…” seems to be a confusion in binary logic. I fail to see how anything absent could be negative. It seems an arbitrary confusion. I try to use the terms “negative” and “positive” as mathematical signs, and not as ethical judgements or bias.

    The idea of a Positive Liberty is interesting in that it allows an individual to “take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes”, as opposed to a communal concept that a person’s identity belongs to a state or that a person’s purpose is to serve a state. Still, what is the reason to attach the adjective “Positive” to this description?

    Plato’s definition of Justice is one of the most written about subjects in philosophy and it may be unfair to link to a specific definition. One could start here:


    I can add two personal observations on the meaning of justice from Plato’s Republic. The first is Glaucon’s defense of Injustice (Book II) where he can find no difference between the just and the unjust man. Both are violent and corrupt.

    The second is Socrates questionable definition of Justice in Book IV:

    Socrates: Further, we affirmed that justice was doing one’s own business, and not being a busybody.

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