33-year-old police officer Michael T. Slager is now facing murder charges after seen firing eight times at a 50-year-old African-American man, Walter L. Scott, who was running away from the officer. And all of this was captured on video by an innocent bystander using a smartphone.
The incident occurred on Saturday in North Charleston, South Carolina, specifically after a traffic stop related to a broken taillight on Scott’s Mercedes-Benz sedan.
In this video posted by the New York Times, Scott is briefly seen wrestling an object out of Slager’s hand onto the grass before running away from the officer. The object in question was initially reported to be a taser. As Scott flees, Slager pulls out his firearm and quickly fires seven times towards Scott’s back, then slightly delays before firing an eighth shot that appears to make Scott fall down. According to Scott’s family, four of the eight bullets struck Scott in the back and a fifth bullet hit Scott’s ear.
The question now is-what if someone would not have caught this unfold on video? What if they wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time? How would today’s circumstances change?
The Scott family believes justice would have never been served for their father.
“It would have never come to light. They would have swept it under the rug, like they did with many others,” Walter Scott Sr. told NBC’s Today show today, speaking of the video’s release.
According to a PBS article, the proliferation of smart phones and social media has made citizen monitoring of police activity easy: people carry high-quality photo and video technology in their pockets, and can share their records almost instantaneously.
Mobile phones have advanced to where specific apps are now dedicated to recording interactions with the police. Different ACLU state offices have apps that record video and immediately back them up to a server, so records are not lost if a phone is lost or destroyed.
The existence of this kind of record shifts the conversation, said Lumumba Bandele, Senior Community Organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a co-founder of a Brooklyn-based grassroots cop watch program.
“Before the knowledge of this tape [of Walter Scott], the police account was totally different. Now that it’s present, we can see what would have been presented and likely accepted as the narrative.”
Mary Angela Bock, an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism who researches photojournalism practice and ethics, said citizens need to develop this practice not just in times of major fallouts, but in everyday events.
“All citizens should be in the habit of documenting the public work of police in public places,” she said, “It shouldn’t be only in times of crisis, and not just people in groups that are marginalized in society. Everyone needs to make it a respectful habit.”
So what should this kind of civilian monitoring look like? Simple, said Bock: “It would look like journalism.”
Documenting public officials at work, she said, is what journalists do every day.
“Now that everybody can be a journalist, everybody needs to learn the ethics and think like one,” Bock said.