Developments in the cases of Walter Scott in South Carolina and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, as well as the police shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in Texas, once again reignited a debate this week over policing, race, and justice that is taking on ever greater urgency as the new administration makes clear its commitment to law enforcement over civil rights.
On Tuesday, Michael Slager, a former police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to a federal charge of violating Walter Scott’s civil rights. Slager’s 2015 shooting of Scott — in the back and as he ran away unarmed — was caught in a video that left no doubt about the officer’s crime, but as part of the deal Slager, who would have been facing a second state trial after a first ended in a hung jury last December, had his murder charge dropped.
Slager’s admission of guilt made for an incredibly rare federal conviction of a police officer in connection with an unjustified shooting. Most officers involved in similar incidents are never charged at the local level — let alone the federal one, which comes with a higher burden of proof. In 2015, for instance, as protests demanding police accountability rocked the country and unofficial tallies put the number of people killed by police at 1,200, 18 officers faced murder or manslaughter charges, a record high. None were convicted.
Slager could now face life in prison. Scott’s family hailed the plea as a victory in the fight for police accountability, but others were angry the murder charge was dropped. So was Slager’s conviction justice?
“In a world where you have 1,200 people killed by police every year and 15 of them get prosecuted, yes,” said Jonathan Smith, who for five years led the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
Yet those who welcomed Slager’s conviction were immediately reminded of just how elusive that justice remains. News of the officer’s plea deal was in fact quickly eclipsed by a leaked report that the DOJ would decline to pursue charges against two Baton Rouge officers who last July tackled Alton Sterling, who was selling CDs outside a store, and shot him in the chest and back while he was on the ground. That shooting, too, was caught on camera, fueling protests that were violently met by police.
Rumors of the DOJ’s imminent announcement in Sterling’s case circulated for days — as Baton Rouge residents braced for the worst and angry officials demanded the federal government act more transparently. The DOJ finally confirmed the decision on Wednesday.
“The Department of Justice’s failure to communicate with the community has created angst and nervousness,” Congressman Cedric Richmond wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the announcement. “I fear that without this transparency, concerned citizens will be left with no choice but lose faith in your Department’s ability to conduct a fair, unbiased investigation.”
In fact, affected communities’ confidence in the DOJ lagged long before Sessions’s deeply contested appointment to run it. During the Obama administration, the Justice Department aggressively pursued investigations of systemic civil rights violations by police departments across the country, forcing them to reform or face litigation. But even as it condemned one police department after the other, the DOJ rarely held individual officers accountable for their crimes (Slager is an exception), leaving communities from Baltimore to Ferguson frustrated by reports that called for change but delivered no justice.
Until individual officers face consequences, advocates have long argued, the killings won’t stop.
The latest tragic illustration of that point is Jordan Edwards, a high school freshman who was killed while driving away from a party in the Dallas suburb of Balch Springs. Police initially said the car he was in had been charging at police, then changed their account when dash cam video showed that was not true. On Tuesday, Roy Oliver, the officer who shot into the car, was fired. He has yet to be charged or arrested.
“This keeps happening — and it’s sickening,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of the racial justice group Color of Change said in a statement following Edwards’ death. “We’ve seen this time and time again.”
Edwards was one of 333 people killed by police so far this year, and the youngest. His death poses a first test to Sessions’ DOJ, which inherited investigations of the individual officers who killed Scott, Sterling, and Eric Garner in New York from the previous administration but has yet to pursue any of its own.
“If the department expresses no concern about that and doesn’t get involved in one way or another, that will give you an early sense of what the administration’s future agenda in these cases is going to be,” said Smith, the former DOJ official, referring to Edwards’ death.
DOJ officials did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about the possibility of investigating Oliver or the Balch Springs police department.
Although the Justice Department was reluctant to go after individual officers in the past, its widespread “pattern and practice” investigations of police departments became a hallmark of the previous administration’s commitment to civil rights work — a commitment Sessions as vowed to end.
“In a case like Baton Rouge, or in a case like Dallas, what the DOJ should be doing is not simply looking at the individual officer’s behavior and considering whether or not to take action to hold that specific officer accountable, but understanding that when you have people like that, it’s often indicative of other problems and other patterns,” said Ezekiel Edwards, who runs the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “We know when they’ve launched those initial inquiries in places like Chicago, Seattle, Cleveland, and Ferguson, that they have found systemic problems.”
“Under this DOJ, that’s not going to happen,” he added.
Quite the opposite. Last month, Sessions called for a review of dozens of agreements that came as a result of earlier investigations, threatening to roll back years of reform. On multiple occasions he made clear that he wants the federal government to leave local law enforcement alone.
“It’s a message to officers on the street and police departments that he believes that, if the Constitution gets in the way, you can ignore the Constitution,” Smith told The Intercept. “He’s consistently said that he thinks that holding police accountable to the Constitution interferes with their ability to deliver public safety, giving free license to the police to ignore our most fundamental law.”