I am sure that most of you have seen the video or at least heard the news, but a white police officer in South Carolina has been charged with murder after shooting an unarmed black man after a routine traffic stop. The video shows the victim, Walter Scott, running away from Michael Slager resulting in Slager firing a series of gun shots toward Scott, eventually taking him to the ground and causing his death. According to Slager, Scott had taken his taser, apparently justifying shooting him in the back.
This seems to be the first time in what seems like forever that an officer is charged with murder themselves when killing another human being. As I was reading an article on the Washington Post about the event, I saw something which made me think of a connection to class. The mayor of North Charleston, R. Keith Summey said, “If you make a bad decision, don’t care if you’re behind the shield…you have to live with that decision.” It reminds me of Robert Cover’s piece, “Violence and the Word,” in its connection between the inherent violence of law and the violence carried out by certain legal actors involved. Essentially, legal interpretation is violent to deter societal violence. Judges interpret the law in a way to connect words with violence. For example, a judge interprets the law in a manner and then tells the defendant, “you’re guilty” and “sentenced to death.” Then those words are connected to the violent acts of being thrown in prison and the eventual death sentence.
However, the judge is the one who interprets the law. The bailiff, police officer, or whoever is not meant to interpret the law in a way that connects words with violence. They are the ones who carry out the violent deeds of the law, such as execution (at least in older forms of a death sentence) or using violence to stop a gunman from killing others. In these situations, the police officer is following the violent nature of law. They are not, however, interpreting the law.
Police officers are fully expected to use violence if need be to deter violence, but are not expected to go above their duty to “protect and serve.” If ever our law stipulates that killing a defenseless man who poses no immediate or external threat is fair game then we clearly have some institutional problems. Thankfully, that is not the law of the land. Unfortunately for Walter Scott, Eric Garner, and countless others, some police officers are able to hide “behind the shield” when they have overstepped their roles.
It is if we have given police officers the right to interpret the law on the fly. Scott, who was pulled over for a traffic stop, did not deserve to be shot at and certainly did not deserve to die. Slager’s interpretation of the law regarding a traffic violation was clearly flawed. I do not know if “justice” is at all given to Scott’s family by Slager’s arrest, but it is right and fair under the auspices of the law that Slager was charged with murder. Even without all the evidence and facts of the case out, Slager abused his power in the law and effectively connected legal interpretation and violence in a way that is all too common.
Let me know what you think. I wrote this immediately after reading the article so I apologize if it reads like I’m disregarding all of the positive works of law enforcement. However, I am just beyond disappointed that some citizens, disproportionally African American men, are not awarded the protection under the law that everyone has access to. It is an issue that damages our democracy and one in which I feel very strongly about.