Shooting drew together ordinary lives of driver, officer

AP News
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Posted: Apr 12, 2015 10:41 PM
Shooting drew together ordinary lives of driver, officer

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — But for a series of split-second decisions that followed a traffic stop, Walter Scott might still be alive and police officer Michael Slager still patrolling the streets.

When the two men's lives intersected on April 4, Scott had just purchased a used car from a neighbor. Slager was starting a routine weekend shift on a warm spring day. In a matter of minutes, one man was dead. Within days, the other was charged with murder.

A third man on his way to work captured the encounter on cellphone video that shocked the world and added fuel to the national debate about race and aggressive police tactics that began in August with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Family members say Scott was so fearful of returning to jail over late child-support payments that he tried to outrun the law. And the officer, amid the adrenaline of a short foot chase, fired a fatal volley of eight bullets at the back of a fleeing suspect who appeared to pose no immediate threat.

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It all began with a traffic stop along a busy stretch of commercial road in North Charleston, a city that, not unlike Ferguson, has a large working-class black population policed by a force that is overwhelmingly white.

Scott was buying a nearly 25-year-old Mercedes-Benz sedan from a neighbor, and he knew in advance that it needed a few repairs. But it was still better than his van, a beater that would break down on the way to his job as a forklift operator in a distribution warehouse.

So that Saturday morning he jumped into his car, picked up a friend from work and headed to an auto-parts store a few miles away. He called his girlfriend: He wouldn't be long.

Slager had been with the North Charleston Police Department for about five years, following a stint in the Coast Guard. He was watching out for traffic violations and waiting to answer trouble calls over the radio. If things went right, maybe he'd get home early enough to enjoy the rest of the day with his wife, who was eight months pregnant, and their two children.

A few blocks away, 23-year-old Feidin Santana was getting ready for work. As usual, the immigrant from the Dominican Republic planned to walk to his job at a barbershop, passing storefronts, houses and empty lots.

The three men did not know each other when they left their homes, but their lives collided shortly after 9:30 a.m., when Slager flipped on his blue lights to pull Scott over. Police said it was for a burned-out taillight.

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Scott knew he was in trouble. The father of four children had fallen behind, again, on child support owed to his ex-wife.

So while he was still in the car, he called his mother to tell her he might be heading to jail, according to his older brother, Anthony Scott.

"He wanted to let her know he was getting pulled over and the way this was going, he'd probably be getting arrested," said Anthony Scott, his older brother. "In other words: Get ready to come and get me."

Slager told authorities that he fired his Taser at Scott as he ran, but the stun gun didn't work. Then during a scuffle over the weapon, Slager said, he shot Scott with his handgun in self-defense.

Within minutes, North Charleston police turned the investigation over to state law-enforcement officials. That night, the police department issued a news release, repeating Slager's account of the shooting.

"This is part of the job that no one likes and wishes would never happen," the North Charleston police chief said in the release.

But Scott's family was suspicious. It just didn't add up.

Yes, Scott was behind on child support. But he wasn't violent. He may have tried to run from the officer because he didn't want to go to jail.

They said the 50-year-old was happy, had a steady job and was making plans to marry his girlfriend. As a young man, he served two years in the Coast Guard before receiving a general discharge under honorable conditions. The discharge was prompted by misconduct related to a drug offense.

Years later, his brothers said, he earned a degree in massage therapy.

Even with all his struggles to keep up with child-support payments, his brothers said, Scott stayed close to his four children — a 24-year-old daughter and three sons ages 22, 20 and 16.

Despite two failed marriages, he was planning to tie the knot a third time. Scott had been dating Charlotte Jones for about five years. They got engaged about a week before he was killed.

The family wanted answers. As word of the shooting spread in the community, many feared police would close the case without taking any action against the officer.

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Then there was the video.

On his way to work, Santana noticed the confrontation between the white officer and a black man in an empty lot. He stopped, pushed record on his iPhone and captured a video that showed Scott running away and Slager firing eight shots at his back.

After much soul searching, Santana decided that night to find a way to reach out to Scott's family.

At first, Santana said, he was scared to come forward because he knew the video was potentially explosive. He told multiple news organizations that he didn't hear Slager say "stop" before the officer fired.

Santana also said a law enforcement officer told him to stay, but in the chaos of the shooting, he slipped from the scene without being questioned.

When Santana heard the man who was shot died, he started checking Facebook to see if he had a friend who knew the family. He did, and Santana reached out to them. On Sunday, a day after the shooting, he showed them the video.

It confirmed the family's worst fears, said Chris Stewart, attorney for the Scott family.

The following day, Santana gave a copy to state investigators.

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The video immediately changed perceptions of what happened.

But there was more evidence that contradicted Slager's story, including video captured by a camera mounted on the dash of the officer's cruiser, as well as radio traffic. They all provided investigators with disturbing new details.

With the dash cam, the traffic stop starts like any other. Slager is seen walking toward the driver's side window and heard asking for Scott's license and registration. Slager then returns to his cruiser. Next, the video shows Scott starting to get out of the car, his right hand raised above his head. He quickly gets back in the vehicle and closes the door.

Seconds later, he opens the door again and takes off running. Within a block or two, out of the dashboard camera's view, Slager catches up to him in an empty lot.

A recording of police radio traffic shows about three minutes pass between the call from Slager that he is conducting a traffic stop on a Mercedes and a second call to report that he is in a foot pursuit of a "black male, green shirt, blue pants."

The dispatcher can be heard calling for all other police units in the area to respond. Several officers reply that they're on the way. About a minute later, Slager can be heard yelling "Lie on the ground!"

About 50 seconds later, Slager radios the dispatcher: "Shots fired. Subject is down. He grabbed my Taser." On Santana's video, Slager is seen walking over to handcuff Scott, who is face down and motionless in the grass.

A voice on the radio asks Slager if everyone at the scene is "10-4," a radio code often used by officers to mean "OK."

Police officer Clarence Habersham, who arrived at the scene seconds after the shooting, kneels over Scott and responds: "Everyone is 10-4, except for the suspect. ... Gunshot wound, it looks like, to the chest, to the right side. Unresponsive. ... Another gunshot wound to the buttocks."

About five minutes pass after the shooting before an officer radioed the dispatcher that he was administering first aid to Scott and beginning chest compressions. An ambulance arrives about seven minutes after the shots were fired.

Scott is declared dead at the scene.

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North Charleston officials announced Tuesday that Slager had been charged with murder. They quickly fired him from the police force.

Authorities refused to provide some details, including the name of the passenger who was with Scott at the time of the incident. A police report said the man was questioned at the scene and released.

In the aftermath of the charges, new details came out about Slager, who was also in the Coast Guard before joining the police department.

In separate matter, a man had alleged that Slager used his stun gun against him without reason. But Slager was exonerated and the case closed. Witnesses told The Associated Press that investigators never followed up with them. Police say they are now looking at that case again.

Slager lived a mile from the shooting scene in neighboring Hanahan. Days after the shooting, the house looked empty. A car covered in pollen with a Coast Guard sticker on the window sat in the driveway.

Neighbors mostly politely declined to talk about Slager, saying he mostly kept to himself and walked his pug dogs.

Back at the empty lot where Scott was shot, people have left a steady stream of flowers, stuffed animals, notes and protest signs.

Many in the community say police routinely dismiss complaints of brutality and harassment, even when eyewitnesses can attest to misbehavior. The result, they say, is that officers are regarded with distrust and fear.

And if the video didn't exist, the Rev. Joseph Darby, vice president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told a reporter, "in about three or four months, you'd get a memo from prosecutors saying they hadn't charged him, and you would write up a little item and never think about it again."

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Biesecker reported from Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.