The video recorded execution of Walter Scott by South Carolina by North Charleston Police officer Michael T Slager would have gone down as just another justified use of force had Feidin Santana not pulled out his cell phone and recorded the incident. Santana now fears for his life.
The story is out there for anyone who cares to read it. In short, a routine traffic stop by Slager revealed that Scott was wanted on bench warrants for non-payment of child support. When Slager attempted to flee, Scott tried to stop him. When the taser failed to incapacitate Scott, Slager used his 9mm pistol to shoot Scott in the back 5 times.
Slager is now charged with homocide. The City of North Charleston also fired him, so he cannot rely on the City for his legal defense. But all of this only happened after Feidin's video went viral, and public outrage forced the City's hand. One week ago, it was a successful cover up that involved Slager planting evidence (seen on the video), the coroner keeping quiet about the shots in the back, and the police department not reviewing the dash cam footage to corroborate Slager's version of events.
The thing is, this happens all the time. The rise of militarized policing and expanded police powers following the tough-on-crime movement of the 90's has led to a situation where civilian police training and equipment are not oriented towards the philosophy of protect and serve.
This is not to say all cops are bad. Nobody goes into law enforcement so they can be jerks. They legitimately want to protect and serve their community. The training they receive and the orders they are given, however, put them at odds with that sense. We shouldn't be surprised when some of them go awry. We also shouldn't discount that - like any other population - some of them are just assholes.
So where does that put you, the citizen, with respect to the police? First, always know your rights. The ACLU has a good starting point. You don't have to talk to police, and you don't have to answer most of the questions they ask. Whether it is a casual encounter, a traffic stop or they're showing up at your door, encounters with the police are always voluntary on the part of the citizen unless they have probable cause or a warrant. Even then, you have rights that limit the extent of the encounter. A good site for more information on this is FlexYourRights.org.
Don't be an asshole yourself. Again, most cops are respectful, good people out to protect and serve their communities. If they aren't actively transgressing your freedoms, don't actively transgress their sense of calm. But what you should do - no matter what - is film your encounters. It's also a good idea to film encounters of others with police.
Of course, filming police does attract some unwanted attention. It's not uncommon for police to confiscate phones as "evidence" in order to suppress the video. So you need to take these additional steps:
- Protect your phone with a password, lock pattern or facial recognition.
- Use an app like Google Drive or Dropbox to automatically back your videos up to the Internet.
- Know your rights - the US Supreme Court has ruled that citizens have a right to record officers while performing their duties. However, cops will attempt to harrass and intimidate you, citing "interference with an investigation" among other things. Always stay 25 feet from the officers, and don't shout or say anything to them.
Lastly, don't film in secret. If you're filming your own encounter, let the officer know that you're filming, and that the video is being streamed to the cloud. Not only is it a courtesy, but it will also encourage the cop to be on their best behavior.
All of this seems rather uncivil and discourteous. Most of us were raised to respect authority, and that is still true. Respect. However, respect does not have to mean compliance or submission. Cops are trained to not trust you. They're trained to control the situation. It is ingrained in their training, and it is rehearsed until it is automatic. There are a large number of people who have been arrested, jailed and imprisoned who are completely innocent of any crime, but got caught up in circumstances.
Remember... always record the cops. It costs nothing, it's your right, and it could be the only thing that protects yourself or someone like you.