You’ve probably seen the video of the police officer who shot a black man in the back. Walter Scott, the victim, was hit eight times as he jogged away. The cop, Michael Slager, is seen on the video picking up an object and planting it next to Scott’s body. And it turns out that the video doesn’t match the information Slager reported.
First, understand that what happened was so blatant – and also comes in the midst of media focus on police violence – that it necessitated a response. If there was even the slightest ambiguity in the video then that cop would not have been charged with a crime. It was only the combination of social unrest (the current spotlight on the police), a man shot multiple times in the back, and a clear video, plus the officer planting a weapon, that made this extraordinary. Had the scenario lacked any one of those elements then the cop would not have caught a murder charge. (And he’s still not guilty – let’s see if he is actually convicted.)
The video is crucial here. Had no one been standing by then this would be one of many “justified” homicides. The full incident would be reported however the police officer wanted to spin it. The media would pick up the official police version; the police version would be what the family of the dead man is told. We only know that the cop lied because the video surfaced.
Please don’t doubt that this happens a lot. I think it would be naïve to assume anything else. Is the American public to trust that all police homicides are justified based on the mere testimony of police officers themselves? Are we all so fortunate that the aberration of a cop lying just happened to be caught on video this once? No – think of the video as a sample. For every homicide caught on tape, the police commit n homicides that go un-filmed.
It is easy to interpret the arrest as a win. An arrest was made (this is rare). It even happened quickly (relatively). Remember – the arrest isn’t the rule, it’s the exception. The fact that one cop was charged with murder does not undo the system of sanctioned violence that is policing. It doesn’t change the fact that a cop killing a man in cold blood has been an event that has happened innumerable times in the past, nor that we’re sure run across cops killing people in the future. It doesn’t change the nature of policing and law enforcement: an institution that is, itself, derived from hierarchy and power over others, specializing in the use of violence, manifesting abuse as a feature.
The murder charge isn’t bringing Scott back to life. Putting a cop in prison does no more good than putting anyone else in prison. This is because when someone is sent to prison it’s too late. It’s one of the fundamental problems with modern criminal justice. We shouldn’t take the ability to punish people for bad behavior as a victory – it is only a success to prevent the behavior in the first place. When the act happens it’s a failure. Everything else is just picking up the pieces.
The solution here, what we could have done to have saved Scott’s life, is staring us in the face. We’re already able to prevent some crimes completely. Manufactured crimes can disappear by the abolition of the law or policy that manufactured them. These tend to be bad laws in the first place. Drug laws are the common example. Then there are crimes we may only be able to prevent incompletely. Random violence, without reason, let’s say. Police violence is one we’re able to prevent completely. It falls into the first category.
We should learn to and encourage others to approach the phenomenon of police violence as a crime. Not only when it is a murder, nor solely when it is criminal de jure. That is, not only when it is illegal according to written legislation. Instead, as a crime against the individual and against humanity. When a police officer beats someone to force compliance with the law this, too, is by its fundamental nature a criminal act.
Those who believe policing is a “necessary evil” have already acknowledged half: it is an evil. All I challenge is that it is necessary, that is, the belief that we cannot attain functional social relations without the existing policing paradigm. We don’t need to fight manufactured criminal acts with institutional manufactured criminality. But as long as we do, then the kind of police violence such as we’ve seen with Scott and Slager will continue. Nothing has changed.