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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